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

4.3 out of 5 stars 33 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“A popular science masterpiece…It's a book that encompasses relativity theory, quantum theory, evolutionary theory, the mind-boggling nature of antimatter, that reflects on the big bang, and wonders about the nature of being and the destiny of our species. It is, I think, one of the best popular science books I have ever read. It fully lives up to the hype generated by the pre-publication reviews and by Stephen Fry's blurb on the dustjacket: ‘A wonderful, miraculous book: the whole universe bottled for your delight.’”
The Guardian

“Erudite, elegant and thoughtfully constructed…This is all wonderful stuff, the most thoughtful pop science book of the last few years and, along with Richard Dawkins's fine compendium, The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, the most useful to the layman.”
The Sunday Times

“For many years, I've secretly longed for someone to take me by the hand and walk me through time and space — someone who would marvel with me at every strange thing we encountered and pepper his scientific discourse with lines of poetry. This is what Christopher Potter has done.”
— Dava Sobel

“A marvelously capacious book that will attract serious readers everywhere.”
Booklist (starred review)

“A well-executed, consistently readable layperson’s exposition of the state of scientific knowledge…Drawing on everyday experience to put the most esoteric phenomena in perspective, he makes his subject clear without dumbing it down. This is one of the best short surveys of science and its history in recent years.”
Kirkus (starred review)

“This clear and smoothly written look at the mind-boggling history of everything is both informative and provocative.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

From the Hardcover edition. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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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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: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,043,187 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By RBSProds TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 4, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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 Verified Purchase
Just about everyone who enjoys reading about science will enjoy this book. The subtitle, "A Portable History of the Universe", indicates how ambitious the author's goal was in writing the book. I can give no higher praise than to say that he succeeds. The combination of depth, breadth, and conciseness is amazing. Each page provides food for thought.

Here are just some of the topics covered in the book:

o A history of the philosophy of science
o The origins of Relativity and Quantum Theory
o The Standard Model of Particle Physics
o String Theory
o The history of the universe from the first tiny fraction of the first second
o How stars are formed, destroyed, and re-formed
o Evolution in general
o Geological history and mass extinction
o Human evolution

Over the last few centuries, scientific understanding has often worked to remove ourselves from a privileged place in the universe and to diminish the awe and wonder we experience as we contemplate our existence. "You Are Here" succeeds in restoring awe and wonder and fittingly ends with an apt quote from Freeman Dyson: `Mind is woven into the fabric of the universe'.
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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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