BOOK REVIEW by Gregory Mott
In The View From the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Universe (Riverhead, $26.95), the physicist Joel R. Primack and his wife, science philosopher Nancy Ellen Abrams, aim to pick up where Chown leaves off. Primack and Abrams argue that the explosive growth in our understanding of the universe has brought us to the to the brink of a revolution in cosmology similar to the one in physics after Sir Isaac Newton or in biology after Charles Darwin. The barrier, as they see it, is that the scientists leading us in this exploration are generally unwilling to accept the idea that humanity's desire to make sense of our place in the cosmos is evidence that we are in fact at the center of it all.
"From a Darwinian point of view," they write, "it may seem inexplicable that humans should be able to decode the origin and nature of the universe, since this kind of knowledge seems to have no practical consequences and thus no survival value." So their argument, essentially, is that modern science needs higher meaning every bit as much as did ancient societies that traced human ancestry back through the forces of nature. As an example, they note that the Huichol Indians of Mexico believe themselves to be descended from Grandfather Fire -- a decidedly scientific idea, given our modern understanding that everything in the universe is the result of an unbroken chain going back to the Big Bang.
Primack and Abrams argue that one of the key findings from science's exploration of all things great and small is that man is right in the middle of the scale between the largest and smallest things in the universe. Their case is well-argued, if occasionally undermined by the introduction of concepts with fringe-sounding names like Cosmic Uroboros (for the size scale that places man at the center of the universe) and Midgard (the section of that scale where mankind exists). But given their goal of breaking down barriers between the modern and traditional understandings of the universe, the occasional odd-seeming concept is to be expected.
In the end, the book's argument is as much social and political as scientific or spiritual. In advancing the idea that man is at the center of the universe, the authors are implying a responsibility for seeing ourselves as intimately connected to the universe -- and, ultimately, responsible for it.