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The Human Touch: Our Part in the Creation of a Universe Hardcover – February 6, 2007

4 out of 5 stars 11 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. British playwright and novelist Frayn has nursed a serious interest in philosophy since studying it at Cambridge in the 1950s, a fact that won't surprise fans of the writer best known for his 1982 farce, Noises Off, and award-winning 1998 drama, Copenhagen. This bold, original spin on the role of the human imagination in the construction of reality reflects the same robust intellectual curiosity, keen powers of observation and ingenious sense of humor that characterize all his work. Ranging over science, mathematics, philosophy, psychology and linguistics—with a grasp that would be admirable in a professional but is astounding in a self-confessed amateur—Frayn rigorously exposes the human scaffolding propping up what we like to see as a detached, neatly ordered universe. Gazing both outwardly at the indeterminate cosmos suggested by relativity and quantum mechanics, and inwardly at the slippery constructions of consciousness and our sense of self, he focuses on the narrative compulsion that arises from the continual "traffic" between human beings and their ever-changing, ephemeral surroundings. Frayn's dogged unraveling of determinist assumptions and the occasionally mind-bending minutiae of theories, arguments and counterarguments can get taxing, despite lucid and witty prose. But Frayn's ecstatic embrace of a human-made universe is a fascinatingly persuasive ride. (Feb.)
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From Bookmarks Magazine

In less-skilled hands, Michael Frayn's observations might strike the reader as self-indulgent and esoteric, or worse, inaccessible. After all, Frayn spans the range of human experience in this hefty tome—from the origin of consciousness to the infinity of the universe—in an attempt to describe "the great mutual balancing act." Overall, Frayn has a remarkable grasp of science, mathematics, philosophy, linguistics, and related disciplines, and he possesses an intuitive ability to connect with an audience (sharpened, no doubt, by his stage work, most notably in Noises Off and Copenhagen). Also, a keen sense of humor never hurts. The result recalls James Burke (he of the popular history-of-science series Connections) working on a higher plane and with a greater wealth of anecdotes.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Metropolitan Books; 1st edition (February 6, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805081488
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805081480
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.4 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,999,849 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Michael Frayn was born in London in 1933 and began his career as a journalist on the Guardian and the Observer. His novels include Towards the End of the Morning, The Trick of It and Landing on the Sun. Headlong (1999) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, while his most recent novel, Spies (2002), won the Whitbread Novel Award. His fifteen plays range from Noises Off to Copenhagen and most recently Afterlife.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Michael Frayn is well known as a playwright for the hilarious farce _Noises Off_ (film version good but less funny) and for _Copenhagen_, a drama about quantum physicists. He is also a novelist, translator, and journalist. When he was at Cambridge, though, he studied philosophy, and he might say that all his works have been offshoots of that particular endeavor. He returns to the big subject in _The Human Touch: Our Part in the Creation of a Universe_ (Metropolitan Books) with a suitably big book with lots of big and important topics and plenty of profound but lightly-expressed ideas. It has to be said that most of Frayn's ideas have to do with just how deep our wonderment ought to be and how few answers we have, but still, this is a genial guided tour of the issues that have consumed thinkers since before the days of Plato.

The paradox that Frayn looks at in many different ways is this: "The world has no form or substance without you and me to provide them, and you and I have no form or substance without the world to provide them in its turn." He also says that we have not even begun resolve the paradox. "The universe plainly exists independently of human consciousness," he writes, "but what can ever be said about it that has not been mediated through that consciousness?" We have come scientifically to understand a great deal of our universe, especially the planet we inhabit, but the amount compared to the mysteries that still remain is tiny. When we look closely at its complexity, it merely becomes more complex. Frayn, as you can imagine, thinks that numbers are invented. After all, we messed around with numbers for centuries without using a symbol for zero until that concept became part of the system.
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Format: Hardcover
Professional philosophers will have the same problem with this book as professional historians have with Paul Johnson (thus a few 4-stars will appear in an otherwise unassailable 5+-stars). As a non-professional philosopher (but professional scientist), I found this to be a remarkable work: An amalgam of physics, neuroscience, linguistics, and philosophy, brought to bear upon the issue of how we create the universe. Its an astonishing synthesis.

Frayn has a genius for accessibly posing the important questions. What is free will? What is consciousness? Does the universe exist (metaphorically) without us? Most important, do we have the language to even ask the right questions? Could we ever understand ourselves? Frayn has serious doubts, and the answers pour through our fingers like water. But our hands are left wet, and we thirst for more.
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Format: Hardcover
Frayn opens his treatise lamenting about disorder in the universe. He wants straight lines, perfect circularity and stability. Why this should be the case in a cosmos initiated by the Big Bang remains unexplained. Seeking solace from scientists, who are reputed to have the universe organised, Frayn is disappointed to learn they lack a certain consistency in their own views of how the universe is organised and operates. Instead, he must fall back on asking philosophical questions about the cosmos, while stoutly disclaiming any role as a philosopher.

Frayn is a man who's learned enough about the universe to be perplexed by what it doesn't tell him. He's not alone in that. As a playwright, however, he has the language skills to explain his confusion in ways the rest of us can comprehend and sympathise with. He doesn't want to appear lofty or arcane, but the subjects run away with him. He's left to narrate the questions as he's discovered them, spicing his personal reflections with what he's learned. It's not possible to touch on how the universe is structured, how language communicates and obscures, or how our minds elude our feeling of possessing control without unearthing a number of philosophical questions. Unlike many in academia, however, Frayn is the gentlest of commentators. He doesn't really criticise the stands taken by many modern philosophical scholars, but then he doesn't really understand most of them, either. He mildly approves, for example, of Daniel Dennett's "Consciousness Explained", then blithely overlooks Dennett's Multiple Drafts Model of how we think. A better understanding would have resolved several of the questions Frayn raises in his discussion of how elusive thoughts are.
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Format: Hardcover
A beautifully written book that examines our view of the cosmos.

Through a great deal of thought, study, experimenting and effort we have established a view of the universe. We call it the 'Standard Model.' And while it seems to be developing a few cracks around the edges (the speed of gravity, dark matter/energy) it's the best view that we have.

Mr. Frayn points out that we have a bit of grey matter up in our heads that lives on a small clump of matter that isn't quite a sphere, that's going around a rather ordinary star. It's about a third the way out in an arm of a spiral galaxy. One of three hundred million or so stars that are going round and round. And this is just one in our local cluster of galaxies, one local cluster in our super cluster, part of we really don't know how many galaxies, perhaps 125,000,000,000 give or take a few billion. And from here we've developed the Standard Model.

This is a beautiful look at our presumptions to have to be the center of things, a look at the world by a philosopher of our time. Conclusions, no -- the book ends with the same words it uses to begin:

'Look up at the stars on a calm, clear night....'
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