By Adam Frank

Last week one of our astute blog community members recommend the book Masks of the Universe by cosmologist Edward Harrison. I was delighted to see this work come up. This is one of my favorite discussions of Cosmos and Culture and so I wanted to pass along the recommendation with a little extra background.

Harrison's book is an unusual addition to the popular science literature. It is not simply a recounting of Big Bang physics and its triumphs. Instead, Harrison begins with a fundamental, but slippery, question. What is interplay between the raw data the world gives us, and the image of the world we create in response. These responses are what Harrison calls "Universes" and his masks are meant to be the physical science version of Joseph Campbell's Masks of God. As Harrison describes it:

Wherever we find a human society, however primitive, we find a universe and wherever we find a universe, of whatever kind, we find a society; both go together, and one does not exist without the other. Each universe coordinates and unifies a society, enabling its members to communicate their thoughts and share their experiences. Each universe determines what is perceived and what constitutes valid knowledge, and the members of each society believe what is perceived and perceived what is believed.

Harrison has chapters on prehistory, on the first urban societies, on the Greeks etc all the way up to the modern era. Each chapter unpacks the ideas expressed in the quote above - there is more to the story of cosmos and culture than simply being right or wrong about an objective reality. One can not doubt that there is a reality out there that pushed back on us but, in Harrison's view, that reality is always viewed through the prism of culturally constructed paradigms.

In the end Harrison does not answer the most pressing question - to what extend has science finally "gotten it right"? To what extent is the Universe revealed by science THE UNIVERSE and to what extent is it another mask. But that is small criticism given this book's big ambitions. It is a thoughtful and unusual work and well worth more discussion on these pages.

11:59 - February 27, 2010