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You Are Here: A Portable History of the Universe Hardcover – March 3, 2009

4.2 out of 5 stars 32 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Any reader who has avoided science for fear of being overwhelmed will find a friendly guide in Potter, former publisher of Fourth Estate who has a masters in the history and philosophy of science. He addresses the issue head-on by turning the problem into one of scale, taking readers outward in a literary Powers of 10 journey. From meters through kilometers to light-years, Potter takes readers beyond Earth's atmosphere, across the solar system and into deep space, where galaxies gather into vast superclusters. After this headlong rush, Potter offers a quick history of physics and a look at the quarks and gluons at the heart of matter. A quantum mechanics chaser segues into an intimate examination of the Big Bang and stellar formation to the coalescence of our own solar system and, finally, the evolution of life on the speck we call Earth. Giving equal weight to each topic, Potter's steady progression illuminates the ways in which they are all connected. This clear and smoothly written look at the mind-boggling history of everything is both informative and provocative. 10 b&w illus. (Mar.)
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From The New Yorker

Those for whom particle physics and string theory are impenetrable mysteries may not be entirely enlightened by Potter’s genial exegesis of the mysteries of the universe, in which quarks, squarks, and “vibrating lengths of pure energy” are elegantly expounded but remain irreducibly conceptual. Still, he gives a foothold to the floundering with evocative description—“A beard grows a few nanometres in the time taken to raise a razor to the skin”—and with liberal doses of trivia. Among other things, he notes that the moon was formed when a huge planetary collision blew the crust of the earth into the atmosphere, and that the human body contains ten times as many bacterial cells as human ones. Most compellingly, Potter examines the provisional nature of scientific inquiry, in which conjecture can lead to insight and a weakness of a hypothesis can become a strength.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; First Edition edition (March 3, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061137863
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061137860
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #933,748 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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Four and a half ADVENTUROUS Stars!! Author Christopher Potter takes us on a short journey across 14 Billion years of time & space using hard science & speculation, unassailable facts & philosophy, while attempting to generally collate a huge amount of up-to-date data into palatable information for the layman. For the most part, he is very successful. This is an intensive and extensive look at our universe and our place in it: "You Are Here". Oddly enough, this book seems to stand on more solid ground than highly technical books because the author is not a scientist and he's explaining things in understandable language from a standpoint of known scientific findings as a 'summary presentation', often viewed through the prisms of philosophy and reason. This voyage takes us from the edge of the universe, which "is not contained in anything" to manmade and natural physical realities (the awesome chapter called "26 degrees of Separation"), to the birth of life and man on earth ("In and Out of Africa"), and beyond. The solar system, the galaxy, billions of galaxies, galactic clusters, super clusters, the Sloan Great Wall, quasars, black holes and more are taken on in plain, but awe-inspiring language. And there are many fascinating earthly & solar system diversions along the way. The book is laden with meaningful quotes, scientific references, previously unknown facts, and amazement at the reality of life and scientific achievements. Instead of being like a dry college lecture in an auditorium, it's more like a wide-ranging after-dinner discussion with a very well-educated friend. Does he gloss over some things? Yes, sometimes dwelling in trivial detail and repetition, but we also become aware of new things such as the existence of the black hole Sagittarius A and the incredible Sloan Great Wall.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
I am thoroughly enjoying reading this book, and finding it hard to put it down once I pick it up. Potter takes us on a journey starting from 1 meter out to the solar system, the galaxy and the universe.

I did come across one error in the book which I thought should be mentioned. On page 39 (hardcover edition) Potter states that the Andromeda Galaxy is twice the size of the Milky Way, when in fact, even though Andromeda has many more stars, the two are considered to be about the same size and mass. See the Andromeda Galaxy article on Wikipedia.

I'm editing this review to add another factual error I found: on page 109 Potter states that J.J. Thompson measured the charge of an individual electron. Thompson in fact measured the charge-to-mass ratio of the electron (after discovering it). It was Millikan who measured the charge of the electron.

So, now I'm wondering how much I can trust the facts in this book which are new to me.
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Format: Hardcover
The poet Robert Graves once began a book with the words, "there is one story, and one story only, that is worth your telling." The story of the beginning and development of our universe is such a tale, and is told fluently and even reverently by this author.

The very fact that Christopher Potter is not himself a scientist or mathematician only underscores that the nutshell cosmology he offers has become a TALE, just as the opening chapters of Genesis are another kind of tale to a similar purpose.

One of the most interesting themes that emerges from Potter's book is the extent to which we cross out of the intuitive. He explains again and again that analogies will get us nowhere. That childlike comparisons with the familiar are more distortion than clarification. He even warns at times that to exert one's self too avidly to visualize some of the abstruse aspects of the quantum universe can hazard madness.

Didn't some wag say that the universe is not only stranger than we imagine, but is "stranger than we are capable of imagining?" Such an observation really fits here, for the quantum origins of the universe -- set about by Planck space and Planck time -- are of a weirdness almost beyond description.

Potter does not come up with much new in this book, despite suggestions to the contrary by other reviewers. Rather, he takes a large patchwork canvas of myriad scientific popularizations and homogenizes it into a smooth, lucid narrative. He adds a dash of personal observation from time to time, and a little humor.

This book is just a very good effort to tell "the one story only that is worth your telling," the same story set down in the opening chapters of Genesis. It is science crossing over into our own peculiar 21st Century myth.
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Format: Paperback
This is an amazingly ambitious book, presuming as it does to take us from the very smallest thing imaginable (the Planck limit) to the very largest (the extent of the cosmos), from the very earliest time (the Big Bang) to the heat death of the universe.

But this is not just about the physical sciences. Potter goes deeply into philosophy and biology as well. In a sense he is doing what I have done all my life, that is to look at all aspects of our existence and knowledge in an attempt to understand who I am, why I am here, and where I am going. I think Potter, who is something of social critic as well as a scientific generalist and journalist, does an admirable job. I have read other books that attempt something like this. Potter's is one of the most readable.

Potter begins with an "Orientation." We are here--at this point in time, at this place in the universe, at this stage of awareness. He follows this with Chapter 2: "26 Degrees of Separation," which is the number of degrees of mathematical magnitude in meters we are from the size of the universe (10 to the 26th). Potter gives a plethora of numerical information about things of various sizes, from the size of humans (John Keats was 1.54 meters tall, 5' 0.75 ''; the tallest people are found in Herzogovina and Montenegro where the average height of a male is 1.86 meters) through the distance to the Kuiper Belt (about 7.5 billion kilometers distance) to ultimately the radius of the visible universe (about 13 light years distance).
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