As a book reviewer, I hit a triple yesterday. My review of The View from the Center of the Universe by cosmologist Joel R. Primack and his philosopher-of-science wife, Nancy Ellen Abrams, was published in different lengths in three major metropolitan newspapers, the Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
I didn’t care for the book very much, but I could see that it would have strong appeal to a certain audience, including many readers of this blog. Here are some excerpts of the full review.
Though the Copernican revolution marked a significant milestone in human understanding of the cosmos, it also led to a significant loss. Older cosmologies not only placed people at the physical center of the universe, but at the spiritual center as well. Each succeeding refinement in science moved Earth further from the center of everything. Then, a century ago, Einstein’s relativity abolished the physical center completely.
The modern physical science of cosmology places the center of the universe nowhere and everywhere at the same time. …[In] The View from the Center of the Universe,… cosmologist Joel R. Primack and his wife, philosopher of science Nancy Ellen Abrams… [advocate] a new “spiritually centering cosmology.” In fact, they argue, this is a critical time, and finding a new mooring for humanity’s spiritual and moral center is essential. Otherwise, technological excess and abuse of scientific knowledge will threaten civilization as we know it.
Fortunately, all is not lost, Primack and Abrams assert. In Part I of the book (“Cosmological Revolutions”), they claim to have found the answer, and it is profound indeed. Read on and be enlightened, they seem to say. If people adopt the cosmic perspective they have discovered, the human race can yet be saved from itself.
Arrogant? Pretentious? Many readers will think so. Yet the authors’ passionate prose and the questions they propose to explore will draw even the most skeptical forward into Part II, “The New Scientific Picture of the Universe.” …
… Primack and Abrams place humans squarely in the center of their cosmos. Then they address how the universe and its surprising structure-a foam of galaxies-came into being. In a chapter that describes “The Cosmic Las Vegas,” they raise the important idea that random quantum fluctuations can lead to the birth of a universe from the vacuum. They also introduce unproven but productive ideas like cosmic inflation (which can lead to a multiplicity of universes) and ten-dimensional string theory.
In the final scientific chapter, the authors discuss the beginning and evolution of life on Earth, as well as what might be expected on other planets. That culminates in their thoughts about alien intelligence. Some readers will find their conclusions as pretentious as the introductory sections. Others may share the authors’ opinion that they have discovered something profound.
The book then concludes with two chapters in a section designated “The Meaningful Universe.” There the discussion becomes blatantly political. Unfortunately, the pretentious tone of the opening sections returns, creating serious damage the authors’ credibility, even among readers who share their point of view about the need for urgent action to control greenhouse gases. Their presentation seems shrill and will make it easy for opponents to characterize them as extremists.
Even worse, they assert that the way to save the world is to adopt a cosmic view, in particular their new spiritually centering cosmology. It makes them seem like religious zealots recruiting for a cult. Sadly, that closes the book on a sour note, especially for readers who might otherwise find much to appreciate in the solid science of the middle chapters.