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AAAS Science Books & Films

Physics Today

NPR's "All Things Considered" June 2006 "The Editors Recommend"

The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles: May 5, 2006

Los Angeles Times, Sunday Book Review: April 30, 2006

NEW SCIENTIST: April 1, 2006

LIBRARY JOURNAL: Feb.  1, 2006


AAAS Science Books & Films, Vol. 42, No. 3, p. 158 (July-August 2006)

The View from the Center of the Universe

Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams

Written by a renowned cosmologist and his philosopher wife, this very important and fascinating book powerfully describes the scope and depth of human connections to our universe.  Primack and Abrams make clear the revolutionary concepts and implications of the modern understanding of time, space, dark matter, dark energy, eternal inflation, and the stardust filling our bodies, and how that knowledge can affect our feelings about ourselves and our future.  Drawing lessons from the history of creation myths in many cultures, and from the changing perspectives of science over the centuries, they use many complementary approaches, including images and symbols, to paint a comprehensive picture of the value of our place in the universe as we now know it, and our opportunities for action in this critical century.  Their well-supported admonition to "think cosmically, act globally" can be a vital guide to build a "sustainable prosperity."  This topic demands the attention of nearly every thoughtful adult at a time when our impact on our home planet is rising dramatically, as are conflicts between science and religions.  So far, scientists have not succeeded in helping most people sense meaning or purpose when considering the vastness of space that astronomy has revealed over the past few hundred years.  This book drives home the point that "a science that doesn't consider its own meaning can be a danger. . . ," and it gives us much hope of finding paths to remedy that deficiency and to achieve a transcendent and inspiring world-view.

Review for AAAS Science Books & Films

by Steven Kilston, Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Program Manager, Terrestrial Planet Finder 


Physics Today, November 2006, pages 57-58

The View from the Center of the Universe:
Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos

Reviewed by Michael S. Turner

Primack, Joel R. & Nancy Ellen Abrams. The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos. Riverhead: Putnam. Apr. 2006. c.427p. ISBN 1-5944-8914-9. $25.95. SCI

During graduate school, when I was shifting fields from particle physics to astrophysics, I decided to read an elementary book on astronomy to get the lay of the land. What I learned depressed me: We humans occupy an insignificant place in the grand scheme of things, and there is no evidence that the universe has taken or should take note of us. I suspect many other scientists, as well as nonscientists, have had a similar experience. Carl Sagan summed it up well: "We live on a hunk of rock and metal that orbits a humdrum star in the obscure outskirts of an ordinary galaxy"—and he said it before dark matter and dark energy were discovered and were found to account for 96% of the stuff in the universe.

In The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos, Joel Primack, a leading cosmologist and professor of physics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and his wife Nancy Ellen Abrams, a lawyer, writer, and musician, tell us that this cosmic alienation has its roots in the Copernican and Newtonian revolutions and a Faustian deal brokered by René Descartes and Francis Bacon. In the wake of Galileo's bad experience with the Catholic Church, scientists adopted a policy of noninterference with religion, dividing the world into the material (realm of science) and the spiritual (realm of religion). This division allowed science to flourish unfettered. And flourish it did—with profound advances in our understanding of nature, from quarks to the cosmos, and dramatic advances in our quality of life, from electricity and medicine to science-based agriculture and today's quantum-based information economy.

Yet Primack and Abrams argue that the bargain had a significant downside: the severing of humankind's connection with the universe. They also contend that the present revolutionary period of cosmic discovery is the right time to re-establish a widely shared cosmological myth that connects us to the universe. Reconciliation 400 years after a messy divorce is not easy; but with their complementary backgrounds and a decade of jointly teaching a course on cosmology and culture at Santa Cruz, this husband-and-wife team is well qualified to start the conversation.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part is a review of the cosmological myths that preceded the divorce of science and religion, from the cosmology of ancient Egypt to the heavenly spheres that survived from Ptolemy to the Middle Ages. The second part is an exposition of our present understanding of the universe; it focuses on recent breakthroughs such as inflation, dark matter, and dark energy. The third part is an exploration of how we might take advantage of this quantum leap in our knowledge to reconnect with the universe, and even learn lessons from the universe. In the authors' words, "think cosmically, act globally." The book also contains 75 pages of notes that provide expanded discussion and references—both on cosmology and philosophy. These extensive notes are a testimony to the authors' scholarship and style.

The discussion of contemporary cosmology is built around five simple and engaging questions: What is the universe made of? What is the "center of the universe"? What size is the universe? Where do we come from? Are we alone? By and large, Primack and Abrams's approach works, yet I would fault this part of the book a bit for its brevity and lack of illustrations. The authors give short shrift to some important topics—for example, the origin of symmetry between matter and antimatter. I also have some quibbles, for instance, with odd assignments of credit for the introduction of supersymmetric dark matter and inflation. Given the brevity of this part of the book, I believe the authors would have better served readers by staying away from the always difficult and contentious area of saying who did what when.

The most interesting twist in their presentation, one well suited to their larger goal, is the re-centering of humankind in the story. Our physical size is the almost geometric mean of the largest thing we can imagine, the visible universe, and the smallest thing we can rationally discuss, the Planck scale. We are made of the rarest substance in the universe, atoms beyond helium, which accounts for less than 0.1% of the universe. Last but not least, the authors replace the heavenly spheres of Ptolemy with spheres of time, which is appropriate to our isotropic and homogeneous universe, and locate us at the center of time since both our galaxy and Sun are in their middle ages.

It is part three, on the quest to find meaning from our deepened knowledge of the cosmos, that sets the book apart from other popular accounts of the new cosmology. Primack and Abrams present three examples of how we might reconnect by learning from our cosmic evolution. One example involves gravity and wealth. Galaxies, stars, and all cosmic structures are around only because "matter-rich" (higher density) and "matter-poor" (lower density) regions in the universe existed early on. The attractive effect of gravity makes matter-rich regions richer and matter-poor regions poorer. After billions of years, the phenomenon led to bound structures such as our own Milky Way galaxy. Essential to the success of this process is the fact that the inequities were modest because gravity would cause extremely overdense regions to immediately pinch off the space around them and form black holes.

The lesson the authors glean about wealth concentration from their discussion of the effect of gravity is clear: modest wealth concentration can lead to good consequences; excessive wealth concentration can have disastrous effects. As Primack and Abrams aspire to obtain deeper meaning from our knowledge of the universe, they recognize they are battling an existential alternative, the one that depressed me as a graduate student and is well articulated in Steven Weinberg's influential text Gravitation and Cosmology: Principles and Applications of the General Theory of Relativity (Wiley, 1972): "The more comprehensible the universe becomes, the more pointless it seems."

The View from the Center of the Universe has big ambitions and a novel approach for conveying the content and excitement of the current revolution in cosmology. I know of no other book that explains eternal inflation using a Las Vegas analogy, quotes freely from cosmologist Andrei Linde and mythologist Joseph Campbell, and discusses the neurological basis of the human use of metaphor. This book may disappoint the most ardent followers of cosmology who are interested in reading more about the latest developments in the field. And when it comes to reconnecting humankind with the universe, it is still very much a work in progress. Nonetheless, Primack and Abrams's book is well written and thought provoking. The View from the Center of the Universe may even add significantly to ongoing discussions of the proper relationship between science and everything else—including religion. view link here


NPR's "All Things Considered"

Book Review and Excerpt

The View from the Center of the Universe was picked by NPR's "All Things Considered" as one of ten summer reading selections for 2006. It is the first science book chosen for the summer reading selection in at least five years.

Alan Cheuse 2006 Summer Reading Selections

Heading Towards Space...
And now let's head for the outermost limits of space, if there are limits. Prominent American astrophysicist Joel Primack and his writer wife, Nancy Abrams, offer a fascinating new book-length rumination about the meaning of the universe and our role in it. The View from the Center of the Universe takes on big questions: the nature of time and our place in the cosmos (bigger than we might imagine, they suggest). They remind us, in case we've forgotten, that we're made of stardust.

Listen here: Click on red Listen button at top of page. Book review plays during 8:35-9:50 of the 12 minute 54 second audio segment. Aired Friday, June 9, 2006.

NPR's excerpt from the book's Introduction chapter here June 2006
"The Editors Recommend"

The View From the Center of the Universe
by Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams. Riverhead Books, 2006

In this thoughtful and original book, a husband-and-wife team presents a science-based cosmology aimed at allowing us to understand the universe as a whole and our place in it. "Most of us have grown up thinking that there is no basis for our feeling central or even important to the cosmos," they write. "But with the new evidence it turns out that this perspective is nothing but a prejudice. There is no geographic center to an expand-ing universe, but we are cent-ral in several unexpected ways that derive directly from physics and cosmology." Primack is professor of cosmology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and an originator of the theory of cold dark matter; Abrams is a lawyer and a writer. Science: May 28, 2006, page BW15

All Things Big and Small
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. view link here

The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles: May 5, 2006

Spectator - What It Looks Like From Here
By Gaby Friedman, Contributing Writer

Biting off more than most of us can chew, husband and wife authors Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams have taken on the enormously ambitious task of tackling that age-old question: How did the world get here, and does our existence really matter? Primack is a professor of physics at UC Santa Cruz, and Abrams a lawyer and writer with a life-long term interest in science; their new book, "The View From the Center of the Universe, Discovering our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos" (Riverhead Books, 2006), uses cosmology - the astrophysical study of the history and structure of the universe - to meld "Meaning" and science to reach a greater understanding of the origins of life. In the process they also show how humans have long sought connections between their actions on earth and the cosmos.

The book is dense and deals with many complex theories, histories and sciences in layman's language. After examining the makeup and history of the universe using current scientific data, Primack and Abrams argue that humans hold an essential place in the universe and are not merely inconsequential beings in the great unknown. They argue that our current knowledge of the verifiable scientific theories, such as quantum mechanics and relativity gives us a unique understanding of the universe and the opportunity to shape the future destiny of the planet we live on.

The book discusses origin stories and myths from many religions, but it is the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah that best resonates with the authors' view of our role in the universe.

"The interesting thing about the Kabalistic creation story - particularly the version of it that was developed by [16th century Kabbalist] Isaac Luria - is that it has certain similarities to the modern scientific story," Primack said in a joint Journal interview with Abrams. "In the Kabalistic story the creation of the universe is connected to the human role in it, and that is what we are trying to do - connect people with the cosmos."

Nevertheless, their own Jewish backgrounds did not limit their exploration, they say.

"Meaning is not owned by one religion," Abrams said. "We are Jews, we think like Jews, but we don't restrict ourselves to the imagery and the concepts that come from Judaism. We try to find the most apt mythological description [from any religion] for these concepts." view link here

Los Angeles Times, Sunday Book Review: April 30, 2006

Discoveries section
The View From the Center of the Universe:
Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos

Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams
Riverhead Books: 400 pp., $26.95

OUR cosmic address: "Earth, Solar System, Orion Arm, Milky Way Galaxy, Local Group, Local Supercluster." Cosmology, explains the husband-wife team of Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams, is the study of the myth and origin of the 14-billion-year-old universe. It is an effort to frame the universe, give it an identity, much as our ancestors did -- through science as well as intuition, the latter no longer being sufficient, given the data now available to us.

The authors review the evolution in thinking about the universe: the Ptolemaic, Copernican and Newtonian systems, to name a few. They offer marvelous ways to visualize Earth as a sphere or the universe as expanding or how we might once have conceived of our world: "Imagine that it is the year 1200 CE, and you are a monk in a monastery somewhere in Europe"; "Imagine it is late afternoon and you are lying on your back in soft grass, looking up at the sky." There are simple and useful diagrams -- for example, the inverted light cones showing the relationship between past and future. This is one of those truly creative books that crosses disciplines; it synthesizes the information we have so far to evoke a compelling new vision of why we matter in the universe and how we might begin to embrace it again and call it home.


NEW SCIENTIST: April 1, 2006

The Cosmos Within
By Amanda Gefter

VIRTUALLY every human culture has sought to give life meaning through cosmological mythologies. Today, science tells a story of the universe that might actually be true and, according to Joel Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams, we must understand that story to understand ourselves.

This is a deeply inspiring book that should be required reading for everyone. Weaving fascinating science with profound insight, the book puts us at the centre of the world - showing every cell in our bodies to contain the history of the universe and our very existence to be an astounding confluence of nature, from the quantum to the cosmic.


LIBRARY JOURNAL: Feb.  1, 2006

The View from the Center of the Universe:
Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos
By Denise Dayton

Primack, Joel R. & Nancy Ellen Abrams. The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos. Riverhead: Putnam. Apr. 2006. c.427p. ISBN 1-5944-8914-9. $25.95. SCI

The strength of the married writing team of Primack and Abrams is their complementary perspectives on a fascinating subject: he's a well-known cosmologist (physics, Univ. of California, Santa Cruz); she's a writer with a background in the history and philosophy of science. Drawing on the latest findings in astrophysics and cosmology, their readable, lyrically written new book examines the past, present, and future of our understanding of the universe. In an intriguing meld of history, philosophy, anthropology, physics, ecology, and global politics, the authors offer a beautiful balance of scientific fact and theory, challenging readers to learn, to question, and, ultimately, to "think cosmically, act globally." This terrific book will appeal to people who are interested in what's "out there," regardless of their background (or lack thereof) in the sciences. Highly recommended for science collections in all but the smallest public libraries and all academic libraries.-Denise Dayton, Jaffrey Grade Sch., NH


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