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YOU ARE HERE by Christopher Potter Kirkus Star

YOU ARE HERE

A Portable History of the Universe

By Christopher Potter

Pub Date: March 3rd, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-06-113786-0
Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

A well-executed, consistently readable layperson’s exposition of the state of scientific knowledge.

Potter, the former publisher of Fourth Estate, opens his authorial debut by providing readers with a sense of scale. Starting with the human body as a reference point, he expands the measuring rod by orders of ten, moving from large animals to the tallest buildings up through planets, stars and entire galaxies, to the largest of all objects, the universe—more than ten billion light years across. He then steps back to consider the origin of our units of measuring length and time, and how they relate to our place in the universe. The meter and second were both originally defined in terms of our local environment, he notes, but science is focused on looking for measurable phenomena that are repeatable and presumably universal. Potter takes a tour through early history, noting the attempts of previous thinkers to arrive at universal truths. He notes the Greek fascination with geometry and the Copernican revolution, which removed humanity from the center of the universe. A jump ahead leads to Einstein’s recognition that the speed of light is a constant and that gravity can be described as a distortion of space-time caused by mass. This opens the door to a journey in the other direction, to the very small—from men to mice to microbes, down past subatomic particles to the quark, which has no meaningful dimension. The nature of light opens another window on the universe, one of random phenomena on the quantum scale, where measurement itself becomes problematic. Potter then turns to the history of the universe since the Big Bang, plotting the origins of the macrocosm in the interactions of the smallest particles. Finally, he examines the origins and development of life, leading to—but not culminating in—the human species. Drawing on everyday experience to put the most esoteric phenomena in perspective, he makes his subject clear without dumbing it down.

One of the best short surveys of science and its history in recent years.