This book covers a lot of ground, starting with the Big Bang and going through the history of life on Earth. Although much of the material may have been written about before, the author has an original slant that makes the narrative quite fascinating.
Neil Shubin sees our bodies as time capsules that carry the signature of great cosmic and earthly events. For example, written inside us is the birth of the stars. Certain elements in our bodies derive from supernovae. Certain of our organs are shaped by the workings of planets and the action of seas. The particles that make us have traveled billions of years across the universe and will be part of other worlds when Earth is gone...
All this is very appealing, and made me feel very much a citizen of the universe.
The narrative is occasionally interrupted by scenes of Shubin fossil hunting and rock gathering in the Arctic. This is a nice personal touch. And because Shubin is himself fossil hunter, he understands the passion of scientists. The book is full of tales of major scientific discoveries. What I particularly liked was the emphasis on the inspired individuals behind the discoveries, like the self-taught naturalist who went bankrupt mapping the geology of Britain, or the behind-the-scenes woman data analyst who first noticed that the ocean floor was expanding.
Shubin shows how lunatic-fringe ideas eventually became proven scientific fact, and discredited visionaries died, only to have their ideas "discovered" more successfully generations later. This is a lot of fun.
I'm writing this review from the point of view of someone woefully ignorant of science. For me, it was a great way to catch up on what's been transpiring in the universe for the last 13.7 billion years. And learn what the future may hold.
This book is probably best characterized as a broad overview of how the Earth, and life on earth, arrived as its current state. Like his previous 'inner fish' book, Shubin emphsizes how life as we know it has been shaped by the physical and chemical nature of the changes from the big bang to now. The really great thing about his earlier book is that it provides deep insight into the evidence of evolution... basically how higher life forms must carry evidence of their heritage from lower life forms. And in this book why life depends on the creation of heavier elements than those found in the early universe, and conditions on a changing Earth.
The broader scope of this book reduces the depth of coverage, and frankly depth is not possible in a book of such limited page count. The science is descriptive only and suitable for an audience looking for an 'entry level' overview of the subject. Any one with a serious interest in science will feel a bit let down. It's like trying to summarizes the plays of Shakespeare in a single performance.
On the other hand, the end notes provide references to excellent books on the subject matter of each chapter... books that provide greater depth that will satisfy the more academically inclined. I've read most of them and they are indeed well chosen. Since the few illustration in this book are all black and white, it seems perfect for the Kindle reader.
Brilliantly evoking the spirit of Carl Sagan's "Cosmos", eminent vertebrate paleobiologist and evolutionary developmental biologist Neil Shubin has written the most succinct introductory overview I have read of the history of life on Earth and how it has been influenced by Earth's geological history and even, the history of the cosmos, in his long-awaited follow-up to "Your Inner Fish", "The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets and People". This is a book which belongs on the shelves of anyone professing even a vague interest in science, conveying the wonder and excitement of science from the author's unique perspective as an eminent evolutionary biologist. Shubin emphasizes the importance of scientific discovery through asking the right questions and taking, all too often, the risk of connecting the dots in order to explain what may be originally quite inexplicable, interspersing his own autobiographical trajectory as an accomplished field paleobiologist with the careers of scientists in fields as diverse as astrophysics and geology across the vast depths of historical time. What Newton said in attributing his scientific success for being able to "stand on the shoulders of giants", is a perspective that is demonstrated repeatedly in Shubin's terse tome, of which the most noteworthy example (Chapter Six "Connecting the Dots") is the development of the theory of plate tectonics from meteorologist Alfred Wegner's vague concept of continental drift to geophysicist J. Tuzo Wilson's recognition that North America and Europe were once joined together by an extensive mountain range whose remnants include the Appalachians (North America) and Caledonians (Northwestern Europe south to Northwestern Africa) formed after an early Atlantic Ocean disappeared as these continents converged, creating the supercontinent of Pangaea. In a prior chapter, "Kings of the Hill", (Chapter Five), Shubin stresses the importance - and revival - of catastrophic thought in our understanding of the history of life on Earth, giving readers a succinct historical account of the history behind geological maps, the importance of his late University of Chicago colleague invertebrate paleontologist Jack Sepkoski's taxonomic data for understanding fluctuations in taxonomic diversity throughout the Phanerozoic Eon (approximately the last 540 million years of Earth's history, including the present) and the relative success and failure of different taxonomic groups such as dinosaurs. Not only does Shubin introduce us to notable scientists like Jack Sepkoski and J. Tuzo Wilson, but also shows how maverick scientific thinking by relatively young scientists like geologist Maureen Raymo and biologist Nathaniel Dominy have led to important insights into the origin of the ongoing ice age and of color vision in mammals (Chapter Eighth "Fevers and Chills"). Without a doubt, "The Universe Within" is a terrific introduction to current scientific research pertaining to the biological and geological histories of our planet, and one which affirms Shubin's well-deserved status as one of our foremost scientific writers writing for a general readership.
The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People by Neil Shubin
"The Universe Within" is a fun journey to what connects us to the cosmos. Professor Shubin the author of the best-selling "Your Inner Fish" provides readers with a wonderful and accessible book that connects the dots to our human origins. Using his background in paleontology and the converging knowledge from biology and physics; we end up with an enjoyable instructive book that is perfect for the layperson. This 240-page book is composed of the following ten chapters: 1.Rocking Our World, 2. Blasts from the Past, 3. Lucky Stars, 4. About Time, 5. The Ascent of Big, 6. Connecting the Dots, 7. Kings of the Hill, 8. Fever and Chills, 9. Cold Facts, and 10. Mothers of Invention.
1. Great science writing. Professor Shubin is an excellent author who is able to convey the main points to a general audience.
2. Well-researched and engaging book. This book covers many areas of science with ease, from the big bang until the present.
3. Professor Shubin shares his firsthand adventures with readers which make for an enjoyable read.
4. Great use of illustrations, maps and photos that add value to book.
5. The main idea of this book, made plainly clear, "All the galaxies in the cosmos, like every creature on the planet, and every atom, molecule, and body on Earth are deeply connected. That connection begins at a single point 13.7 billion years ago".
6. Good explanation of how rocks tie us to the past.
7. Many great stories of scientists behind important discoveries.
8. The importance of properties of light. How chemistry evolved.
9. A little astronomy for good measure and how it relates to humans.
10. A lot of amazing tidbits interspersed throughout the narrative. "It is a virtual certainty that within the next billion years the sun will run through its hydrogen fuel, expand, and become superhot. In the process, Earth will almost certainly lose its water".
11. How to determine time...many convergences of interest. "Earth spins slower and slower with each passing moment..." Biological clocks.
12. Fossils, ancient species...the evolution of species. Fossils and rock layers.
13. The fascinating balance of oxygen between the forces that produce it and those that consume it.
14. The scientists and observations that led to plate tectonics. "Girl talk". Continental drift.
15. The discovery of extinctions.
16. The evolution of our planet. The impact of carbon dioxide. The cycle of carbon. "The rise of the Tibetan Plateau led to the shift from a warm Earth to a cold one; it did so by pulling carbon from the air via erosion of rock".
17. The "cold" hard facts. The ice age theory. The regular intervals that they occur. "Earth's orbit changes in three major ways. Over 100,000 years Earth's orbit goes from the shape of an oval to a more circular pattern. During 41,000 years Earth rocks back and forth about 2 degrees. And in the course of 19,000 years Earth's tilt wobbles like a top". The ice ages are correlated to the changing orbit, tilt, and gyration of Earth...how cool is that?
18. Human evolution. Biology and culture.
19. Further reading section. Good sources.
1. Did not take advantage of links in the Kindle version.
2. As wonderful as this book is it really is intended for the layperson and as a result lacks depth.
3. The book is heavily weighted in favor of geology.
In summary, this was a fun book to read. Professor Shubin is an engaging author who does a wonderful job of conveying his main ideas to the public. The book is about the thrill of the scientific hunt. In this case, it was about the hunt for discoveries that link humans to our cosmos. As wonderful as this book is, it's not in the same league as his masterpiece, "Your Inner Fish"; be that as it may, it's a solid, accessible book. If you are a layperson and want to learn what connects us all, by all means pick up this book, I highly recommend it!
Further suggestions: "Written in Stone" by Brian Switek, "Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters" by Donald R. Prothero, "Universe Inside You" by Brian Clegg, "The Violinist's Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code" by Sam Kean, "The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution" by Gregory Cochran, "About Time" by Adam Frank, "Deep Ancestry: Inside The Genographic Project" by Spencer Wells, "Why Evolution Is True" by Jerry A. Coyne, , "Guns, Germs, and Steel" by Jared Diamond, "A Universe from Nothing" by Lawrence Krauss, and "Wonders of the Universe" by Brian Cox.
on July 19, 2013
I read 'Your Inner Fish' by Neil Shubin about a year ago. Overall I enjoyed this book and he has an engaging style of writing. His latest book entitled 'The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People', I also enjoyed - but I did not think it was up to the same standard as his earlier work. Although, he is covering a broader topic he seems to jump all over the place throughout and parts of the book read as though it was rushed for publication. Therefore, I was slightly disappointed with this work, however, I would still recommend it to those who have a general interest and want to learn more about science.
We're sometimes reminded that we are just specks in a vast universe. This book really drives that point home in a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging narrative.
Shubin explores a variety of natural phenomena to show how the earth evolved over millions and billions of years. I especially liked the chapter about the ocean floor. We're told about the existence of tall mountains under the oceans and also how those mountains can tell us how the world we see was created. He shares a great deal of scientific information but he's not at all technical. In fact, parts of this book read as easily as a novel.
We're also introduced to the nitty gritty world of science through brief glimpses of Shubin's own field work. I was surprised that his expedition leaders didn't furnish a basic checklist of what to take; he brought inadequate boots and hats to his first venture, yet forged ahead. Perhaps it's part of the macho culture. Shubin gives several examples of women who contributed to science but were dismissed. In one case, a young woman remained a lifetime assistant to a mentor who was her intellectual equal; he did the presenetations and got the credit. As Shubin notes in a sad little sentence, the mentor became a tenure professor and she remained an assistant.
Fortunately, Shubin didn't go into sociological detours but stayed firmly within his subject. As a result, the book remains compact without being dense, an it's a pleasure to read. Ideal for people who want to appreciate science without doing it.
The Universe Within is an interesting book relating physics and the universe with evolution and biology. I really wanted to like this book and for the most part it reads well and does not require an advanced level of scientific knowledge. However, every few pages there is a maddening logic break in the narrative where it seems the author meant to add a lot of explanatory material, but just never got around to it. Someone with a scientific background can usually bridge those gaps, but others may find it frustrating. There are some really huge omissions! I think that the book could benefit from the addition of 100-200 more pages! Yes really huge! With more explanatory material I would rate this book 5 stars.
Here's what I mean (from chapter 9):
"Like most atoms, carbon exists in a number of different forms in the natural world. All carbon atoms have the same number of protons inside their nuclei; the different versions are distinguished from each other by the number of neutrons inside. Libby's insight was that all living things will have the same carbon 14 in their bodies . . . ." WHOA! Wait a minute. The author has failed to mention that 1) normal carbon is carbon 12, and that 2) carbon 14 is radioactive. Without this knowledge the section does not make sense.
Another example is from chapter 8 which seems totally muddled. Note how much explanatory material should have been added!:
"Mammals that lack color vision have only two proteins to perceive color; we and the Old World apes that perceive colors have four." WHOA! Wait a minute. Four!?? [In a comment to this review, it has been noted that the author has now corrected this to 3. Vine reviewers get a pre-publication copy which occasionally gets changed. This does not change my review since this is only one example of many problem areas. Furthermore, merely changing 4 to 3 does not fix the problem of too little explanatory material] I believe Wikipedia has it right when it says, "Perception of color begins with specialized retinal cells containing pigments with different spectral sensitivities, known as cone cells. In humans, there are three [!!] types of cones sensitive to three different spectra, resulting in trichromatic color vision. Each individual cone contains pigments composed of opsin apoprotein." First of all, although most mammals have only two cone types, they do perceive color - just not as well as humans. Second, the author appears to be talking about 4 cone types which is just plain wrong.
He does get it correct that our trichromatic vision arose when one of our color genes was duplicated ("The four proteins that allow us to see colors are duplicates of the two seen in other mammals."), but, of course, there was only one duplication of only one of the two genes giving a total of 3, NOT a duplication of 2 genes to give 4. So the one gene in our ancestor's DNA for longer wavelengths of light was (probably) duplicated, and then the 2 versions of this gene slowly diverged in structure by evolutionary processes over millions of years to become the red and the green genes humans have today. The author should also have noted there is another different, but still reasonable biological hypothesis for the origin of human trichromatic vision.
Yes, I know that some women are believed to have 4 cone types derived from the mutant gene that produces sex-linked red/green color blindness in men, but the author does not indicate in any way he is discussing this topic. As Wikipedia says, "Because humans usually have three kinds of cones with different photopsins, which have different response curves and thus respond to variation in color in different ways, we have trichromatic vision. Being color blind can change this, and there have been some unverified reports of people with four or more types of cones, giving them tetrachromatic vision."
This is an easy to read little science book dealing with evolution and paleobiology. It was not the book I expecting and doesn't reveal any principles or insight that I didn't already know. I was looking for more insight into the science and less about the personal life of the author. It reads as if I was sitting next to the author on a long plane ride and he decided to tell me stories about his life and the science he deals with. Ho-hum. I was frankly bored by the book because I didn't find any of it interesting or compelling or useful in my field of work. I suppose he believes that making the science personal also makes it interesting to the average reader, but it doesn't. Sorry. I hope that doesn't sound harsh, because he may actually have some interesting stories to tell, but I didn't find them in the book. I just didn't gain anything by reading the book and for me that was a waste of my time. Next time the author needs to tell fewer personal anecdotes as filler material and just stick with the science. If you are really into paleobiology or know the author, this book might have more appeal to you. The sum total of the hard science in the book could be summed up on one page, instead of the 200+ pages the author spent chit-chatting with the reader.
This book takes the reader on a journey through time showing how the Earth we know today developed, and how this shaped its plants and animals, and how they shaped the planet. The book blends geology, paleontology and evolutionary biology, with the theme of how all these interact - how the changes in the earth were critical to the evolution of plants and animals and how the earliest algae increased the oxygen content of the planet, enabling air breathing creatures to develop. Running through this are the travels of the author, and through his journey of discovery one learns how the planet and its plants and animals evolved. The book is suitable for high school students and those who want a readable overview of geology, paleontology and evolutionary biology. However, the treatment is only introductory and those who have a more advanced understanding of these subjects may find the book too superficial. Also, in the process of simplifying the material, I feel that some of it is oversimplified, actually making it less understandable - for me at least.
Exactly what is in the book -
The following is provided for those who want more specific information about the content of the book. The book is organized into chapters that are organized chronologically, covering:
· The book begins with the "Big Bang", the creation of stars and how supernova explosions created the heavier elements that make up the Earth and those plants and animals that live on it.
· The book explains how initially the oxygen content of the air and sea was too low for those creatures that require this oxygen, but that it was perfect for algae that produced air through photosynthesis, making the planet habitable for oxygen breathing creatures.
· The book discusses the development of the fields of geology and paleontology and its pioneers.
· It discusses continental drift and how it finally came to be accepted and how it explains many of the riddles of paleontology.
· It shows how catastrophic events have shaped the earth and its plants and animals.
· It discusses the complicated interactions between the gradual increase in the intensity of the sun, the interactions between the carbon in the atmosphere and in the granite of the mountains and in the sea, and how the slight changes in the rotation of the earth on its axis and about the sun, all act to alter the climate of the earth and how this has altered the evolution of its plants and animals.
· The book does not contain footnotes, but it does have a very useful section that contains further reading suggestions and notes tied to each chapter. It also has an index and some black and white photographs and illustrations interspersed within the text.
I was looking forward to reading this book. Professor Shubin is a talented popular science writer who has serious real science cred. I was hoping for a book that would look at cosmology and geology with a human evolution angle. But the balance of this book is heavily weighted toward geology with the addition of some cosmology in the beginning chapters. How the geology and cosmology relate to human evolution is often thrown in at the end of a chapter almost as an afterthought.
It's all very well written, but I've read much of the geology material before and have even met some of the people Professor Shubin references. Yes geology is a very interesting topic, but I'd like to know more about things like the evolution of color vision in our ancestors and less about how uplift of the Himalayas may or may not have significantly cooled the planet.
If you're interested in a well written, if cursory, look at the physical evolution of our cosmos and our planet, The Universe Within is a good start. Professor Shubin writes in an engaging style and is very generous with his compliments of other scientists, most of whom are unknown to the public at large. But if, like me, you really want a book that looks at how humans and their ancestors were influenced by the physical world and its changes over time, this book will come up short.