The Universe And Its Mysteries — To Go

You Are Here cover
Harper
You Are Here: A Portable History of the Universe
By Christopher Potter
Hardcover, 304 pages
Harper
List price: $26.99

Read An Excerpt.

Christopher Potter

Christopher Potter has written for the Sunday Times, The Independent and The Standard. hide caption

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It's been 20 years since the release of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, and still it collects dust on millions of bookshelves, unread and unloved. After 10 pages or so of Hawking's prose, many of us were more confused about time travel or the theory of relativity than before.

The fact is, while classical Newtonian physics could be seen and felt and understood intuitively, the new laws of space and time, which require us to embrace uncertainty and ambiguity, are confusing even to professionals. As Christopher Potter writes in You Are Here: A Portable History of the Universe, "If scientists themselves are entitled to feel excluded, how much more do we, poor puzzled onlookers, peer through a glass darkly?"

Potter is here to hold our hands and walk us through the universe, and he is an excellent tour guide. The head of the respected London publisher Fourth Estate, Potter has created a friendly and poetic introduction to the current understanding of the universe. He begins by mapping out the heavens, light-year by light-year, and then turns his gaze to the minuscule and the quantum (admitting, even, that some scientists think quantum physics makes no sense). He covers evolution and explains the birth process of a star, all the while sparing us from feeling like idiots if we get lost in the theory.

I did not leave You Are Here suddenly understanding Schroedinger and Heisenberg, but for about five whole minutes, I'm pretty sure I understood the basics of relativity. (Then I thought about something else and lost it.)

"Nature resists our attempts to uncover her secrets," the author writes. That she does — but at least we have writers as patient and clever as Christopher Potter to translate those secrets we have uncovered.

Excerpt: 'You Are Here'

You Are Here: A Portable History of the Universe
By Christopher Potter
Hardcover, 304 pages
Harper
List price: $26.99

Chapter One: Orientation

The eternal silence of these infinite spaces alarms me.

Blaise Pascal

You are here, it says on the map in the park, the train station and the shopping centre, an arrow, usually red, pointing to some reassuringly definite location. But where is here, exactly? Children know, or think they know. On the flyleaf of a first book, I wrote out, as we all did after our own fashion, my full cosmic address — Christopher Potter, 225 Rushgreen Road, Lymn, Cheshire, England, The United Kingdom, The World, The Solar System, The Galaxy — my childish handwriting getting larger and larger, as if each part of the address I knew to be bigger and more important than the preceding part, until, with a final flourish, that acme of destinations is reached: the universe itself, the place that must locate everything there is.

As children we soon become aware that the universe must be a strange place. I used to keep myself awake at night trying to imagine what lay beyond the edge of the universe. If the universe contains everything there is, then what is it contained in? We now know, scientists tell us, that the visible universe is a region of radiation that evolved and is not contained in anything. But such a description raises too many questions that are more disturbing than the question we had hoped to have had answered in the first place, and so we quickly put the universe back in its box and think about something else instead.

We do not like to think about the universe because we fear the immensity that is everything. The universe reduces us to a nub, making it difficult to escape the idea that size matters. After all, who can deny the universe when there is so much of it? "Spiritual aspirations threaten to be swallowed up by this senseless bulk into a sort of nightmare of meaninglessness," wrote the Anglo-German scholar Edward Conze (1904-1979). "The enormous quantity of matter that we perceive around us, compared with the trembling little flicker of spiritual insight that we perceive within us, seems to tell strongly in favour of a materialistic outlook on life." We know that we must lose if we are to contest the universe.

Just as terrifying is the idea of nothing at all. A little while ago each of us was nothing, and then was something. No wonder children have nightmares. The something of our existence ought to make the nothingness that preceded life an impossibility, since we also know, as King Lear observes, that "nothing can come of nothing." And yet every day in the annihilation and miraculous resurrection of the ego that is going to sleep and waking up, we are reminded of that very nothingness from which each of us emerges.

If there is something — which there appears to be — then where did that something come from? Such thoughts coincide with the first inklings we have of our own mortality. Death and nothingness go hand in hand: twin terrors to put alongside our terror of the infinite; terrors we spend the rest of our lives suppressing into the shape of our adult selves.

Humans are caught in a bind. On the one hand we know that there is something because we are each sure of our own existence; but we also know there is nothing because we fear that that is where we came from and where we are headed. We know intellectually that the nothingness of death is inescapable but do not actually believe it. "We are all immortal," the American novelist John Updike reminds us, "for as long as we live."

"What happens when I die?" a child soon asks, a question that as adults we also put to one side. Not even a material girl in a material world would be satisfied with an answer that was restricted to descriptions of physical decay, and yet even a material answer to such a question, and indeed to all questions, ill end up at the same place. What is the material of the world and where does it come from? To think about the universe is to ask again the childhood questions we no longer ask: What is everything? And what is nothing?

Seemingly all children start out as budding scientists unafraid to follow a trail of questioning to exhaustion, even if the exhaustion is usually that of their parents. Curiosity drives children to ask why? And why? And why? hoping to arrive at some final destination, like the universe at the end of our cosmic address, a final answer beyond which there are no more whys.

"Why is there something rather than nothing?" asked the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), the question that any description of the universe must ultimately be able to address. Science attempts to answer "why" questions with "how" answers, invoking the dynamic of stuff in the world. But "how" answers also converge on that same ultimate question: instead of asking "why is there something rather than nothing?", scientists ask "how did something come out of nothing?" In order to account for the everything-ness of the universe we must also account for the nothing-ness from which it seems to have appeared. But what could such material as the world is made of look like when it is nothing, and what possible actions could have transformed nothing into something, and something into the everything we call the universe?

For hundreds of years, and for as long as the word has meant anything, science has shown itself to be an evolving process of investigation into whatever it is that is Out There, a place of things that are in motion, and what we mean by the universe. So who better, we might think, than scientists to answer the question: Where — between the void and everything — are we?

Excerpted from You Are Here: A Portable History of the Universe by Christopher Potter, published by HarperCollins/2009

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