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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thought-provoking look at evolution
This is an enjoyable big-picture examination of evolution in light of thermodynamics, i.e. how can order increase despite the 2nd law of thermodynamics? You will need to recall some calculus and some basic physics in order to follow the thread of the discussion. Chaisson does an excellent job of laying out the subject, looking at the evolution of complicated structures,...
Published on April 17, 2003 by Carey Allen

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14 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Worth the Effort
This book was not written for the lay reader of science, such as myself. At times the writer sounds as if, chalk in hand, he is giving a lecture to astrophysics third-year students - the only thing missing is the pronunciation of the equations. Those uncomfortable with formulas will find the middle of the book slow going.
The payoff, for those who persevere, is two...
Published on September 23, 2002 by John F. Valo


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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thought-provoking look at evolution, April 17, 2003
By 
Carey Allen (San Francisco Bay Area) - See all my reviews
This is an enjoyable big-picture examination of evolution in light of thermodynamics, i.e. how can order increase despite the 2nd law of thermodynamics? You will need to recall some calculus and some basic physics in order to follow the thread of the discussion. Chaisson does an excellent job of laying out the subject, looking at the evolution of complicated structures, e.g. the universe, stars, galaxies, planets, life, brains, societies. He actually works through the numbers on several examples in order to give you a better feel for the subject of evolution, and for thermodynamics. If you have an interest in things cosmological, I strongly recommend this book.
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Illuminating and rock-solid, November 16, 2002
Professor Chaisson has succeeded in providing a narrative of the Universe, one that is elegant and satisfying, and at the same time based on a rock-solid, quantitative approach.
This book has finally reconciled for me the vexing question of how complexity and disorder (entropy) can increase simultaneously. I knew that total entropy must increase, per the 2nd law of thermodynamics. What I did not realize is that the maximum POSSIBLE entropy of the Universe is increasing even faster, due to the expansion of the Universe. So now I have a way of visualizing the amount of complexity in the Universe - it is the difference between these two entropies.
One of my favorite aspects of the book is the clear identification of the phases of the Universe: Radiation Era->Matter Era->Life Era. The idea that we, as intelligent life, can give birth to a thriving, universal Life Era is visionary and uplifting (and part of the basis for Reason for the Common Good).
Cosmic Evolution is extremely well-researched, quantitative, and most of all, illuminating.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Expansion of the universe as the engine of creation, September 16, 2011
By 
Ideophile "Idea Lover" (Colorado, United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature (Paperback)
Chaisson's book is an exploration of the consequences of an expanding universe - an exploration that leads to the conclusion that it is the very expansion of the universe that is (almost literally) the engine of creation.

First, Chaisson provides an introduction to the nature of change. He starts out simply enough looking at time and quantum probability, but then turns toward open systems and the "spontaneous order" (or "dissipative structure") consequences of gradients (both thermal and otherwise) in such systems when the second law of thermodynamics kicks in and attempts to drive the system toward equilibrium. This review of the basics sets the stage for Chaisson's ultimate contribution.

Chaisson then moves on to the history of the universe. Taking things a bit out of order, he starts with what he terms the "Matter" period. Here, he covers the cosmology of matter, discussing topics such as the material evidence for an expanding universe, what this tells us about the age of the universe, and so on.

From there, Chaisson reverses field to an earlier period that he calls the "Radiation" period. This period starts with the big bang and revolves around what happens to energy at different densities. For example, at the highest possible densities, energy is just a homogeneous blob. At lower densities, fundamental particles begin precipitating out forming a plasma. At lower densities still, the precipitation stops and these particles begin collecting together into atomic structures and such. And given that the universe is expanding, energy runs through the entire range of these densities - thus it is the very expansion of the universe that drives the evolution of energy and matter.

At this point we jump forward into the "Life" period. This is where Chaisson makes the best use of that introduction on dissipative systems. At this point in its history, the universe is filled with two fundamental components: radiative energy and matter. As the universe expands, the thermal density of these components decreases; however, these densities decrease at different rates. Using equations that could fit on the back of a napkin, Chaisson shows that the expansion of the universe is happening quickly enough that thermal gradients build up between the radiative energy of the universe and the matter of the universe. These gradients cause dissipative structures to form as the second law of thermodynamics kicks in to try to drive the universe toward equilibrium. And, as discussed in the intro, such dissipative structures are the sediment from which more complex dissipative structures can form as these gradients vary and persist. Spontaneous order occurs and becomes more complex without violating any of the laws of thermodynamics. Given enough time, there can arise metabolic dissipative structures - that is, life itself. And all due to the simple fact that the universe expands.

If Chaisson is right, he has unveiled a mind-blowingly simple reason regarding why the total complexity and total entropy of the universe should be able to increase at the same time even if the universe turns out to be a closed system. Why no-one ever discovered this simple reason before could be that no-one ever thought there was a need to look for one. That is, in our own little corner of the universe it is often thought that if you consider the Earth as an open system that all you need to explain the increasing complexity of the biosphere is the massive energy influx from the Sun. That may be true, but Chaisson may have just shown that ever-increasing complexity is not simply a local phenomenon of relatively small open systems at the expense of the rest of the universe but rather is a general principle of the universe as a whole.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Sweeping View of our Universe, February 29, 2012
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This review is from: Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature (Paperback)
As a non-scientist with a life-long interest in science, I was particularly interested in this book as I had earlier read his "The Life Era" which discussed similar themes and was written for a broad audience. Since "Cosmic Evolution" was published by the Harvard University Press I anticipated a bit more scientific rigor which indeed was the case which made for a more challenging "read" on occasion but one ultimately more rewarding and stimulating. Equations are used, but not particularly frequently, and most of them I could follow, and the author provides a list of "Symbols and Numerical Constants" at the back of the book which helped when I had forgotten what a symbol stood for. In keeping with the "big picture" view of the book, the graphs are schematic and not empirical but help very much in clearly depicting the mathematical relationships in the book.

The big picture in this book is that, since the Big Bang, the universe has moved from the Radiation Era to the Matter Era to the current Life Era with order and complexity building, e.g., a planet is more complex than a star, a worm is more complex than a rock, and a human is more complex than a frog. Dr. Chaisson uses (resuscitates?) 19th century energy physics with its energy flows and energy gradients as the driving force behind the complexification he describes (along with the general expansion of the universe) and suggests that at least in his mind energy physics need not give way to information theory in providing the more cogent explanation for this trend. I recall the English astronomer Arthur Eddington as a zealous expounder of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics who took it to its ruthless conclusion in the "heat death of the universe"; Chaisson makes the 2nd law the focal point of his analysis and shows how the trend he analyzes toward complexity and order, and away from disorder and entropy, comes at the expense of more entropy outside these "islands" of complexity and order. As a physicist, and an apparent admirer of E. Wilson's "Consilience", the author clearly suggests that basic physics lies at the heart of his exposition and asks the question at the end of his book: "Is Biology Part of Physics?" which is sure to irritate some life scientists. Personally, I would include a 4th era, the era of intellect and consciousness, which I believe is as profound an emergence from life as life was an emergence from matter. Since Dr. Chaisson is a physicist and not a neuroscientist he may have felt unsure in applying his energy gradients to the human brain although he does note that it absorbs 20% of the body's energy while comprising only 3% of the body's weight.

Almost 5 stars, but a strong 4 stars for the all-encompassing nature of the argument.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The possibility of complexity, June 16, 2011
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This review is from: Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature (Paperback)
This book contains great ideas, and some of them definitely true and correct - they have to be, lest the fundamental laws of physics are violated. In a nutshell: The universe is expanding; the expanding of the universe causes a gap between the maximum possible level of entropy and the actual amount of entropy within the universe - hence disquilibrium is possible; this gap is the foundation of the flow of free energy and thus the seed of the formation of organized structures (such organized structures have low entropy by definition); the process of generating progrssively more & more complicated stuctures is therefore possible and consistent with the laws of the universe (viz. the second law of thermodynamics); our human existence, behavior and even cultures fit within this scheme coherently.

The first two-thirds of the book is excellent - with equations and mathematical analysis to prove and demontrate the aforementioned thesis convincingly and conclusively. A lot of effort (perhaps slightly too much) is spent on explaining in great length and depth the concept of free energy rate density - with slightly detailed derivation and estimation.

The last third of the book is, to my humble opinion, not as good as the first two thirds. I feel that the author is stretching the concept of disequilibrium engendering complexity too far. It is difficult to pinpoint (as in this part of the book he is comparatively vague) but it seems that he is trying to explain biological evolution and even sentience using the same ideas; and more than once he suggests that the boundary between life and "non-life" is blurred if not non-existent. To be fair, he admits frankly that there are limitations and uncertainties, but the urge and temptation to be encompassing (perhaps too ambitiously) is easily palpable.

So, overall it is a book with very important ideas; but towards the end it tends to philosophize a bit too much and detracts a bit from the initial clarity. Four stars.
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14 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Worth the Effort, September 23, 2002
This book was not written for the lay reader of science, such as myself. At times the writer sounds as if, chalk in hand, he is giving a lecture to astrophysics third-year students - the only thing missing is the pronunciation of the equations. Those uncomfortable with formulas will find the middle of the book slow going.
The payoff, for those who persevere, is two or three new ideas. And that's why we read books like this.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant in parts, August 5, 2012
This review is from: Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature (Paperback)
The author has a gift with words and at times paints a beautiful epic of the evolution of our universe. But I found the quantitative aspects of the book not as entertaining, or convincing. For instance, he has an interesting theory that energy density can serve as a proxy for complexity, but then does things like calculating the energy density of a brain outside of a body or the specific components of the earth's biogeochemical cycles outside of a planetary total. This just doesn't make sense to me - you can't pick and chose components of wholes that have the right quantitative values to support your pet theory. There were other issues as well, like the idea of a drive to complexification in the universe acting as a sort of causal force. This was never stated, but implied. In any event, this is a book worth reading, I just found it quite uneven.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Informative and well written!, March 11, 2013
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This review is from: Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature (Paperback)
I highly recommend this book. It is written so that a reasonably informed reader would thoroughly understand and enjoy it.
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5 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Chaisson Informs Us That 'Vitalism Has No Scientific Merit:', December 26, 2007
This review is from: Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature (Paperback)
I quote: "life likely differs from the rest of clumped matter only in degree, not in kind. We admit no vitalism, no special life force that would set animate beings manifestly apart from all other forms of inanimate complexity [p.122...] a 'life force' [...] something akin to vitalism or vis vitae [p.149...] no one has ever discovered anything akin to an elan vital, or special life force, that would truly set aside life from all other organized systems [p.217]." This is in keeping with the perspective of modern biology as concerns 'the stuff of life:' until there is evidence to support the idea, vitalism is merely an archaic, superstitious figment.
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Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature
Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature by Eric Chaisson (Paperback - October 15, 2002)
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