A scientifically grounded search for meaning in a universe that continually reveals itself as ever more complex and capacious.
The more we learn about our dizzyingly expansive universe, first-time author Brown contends, the more humankind is confronted by existential crisis. The “astonishing mosaic of matter and energy that we are just beginning to understand” can create a sense of personal diminishment—how does puny human existence fit within such a cosmology? Brown argues that the universe can be understood, maybe somewhat anthropomorphically, as an exploration for new means of survival, as a preservation instinct writ large. To substantiate this claim, he furnishes a sweeping consideration of the structures that make up the universe, from its constituent parts to our solar system to Earth. If nothing else, this breezily written volume is worth reading for its accessible introduction to cosmology. Brown lucidly discusses competing interpretations of the universe’s origins and subsequent development. People can find purpose and meaning by participating in the maintenance and improvement of the universe’s sustainability, a collective project that not only brings us closer to understanding the totality of life and the cosmos, but to each other: “The path of developing harmony as a necessary prelude to creating meaning for our existence requires us to act uniformly as a species to eliminate the vast inequities in power, wealth and opportunity that are now so prevalent among us.” This is an extraordinarily ambitious investigation that includes consideration of a vast array of subjects, including overpopulation, the nature of violence, and Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing on the National Security Agency. Sometimes the author strays too far afield, seemingly afraid to leave a potentially pertinent topic unmentioned. Brown avoids any dogmatic attachment, however, often insisting that certainty about such difficult matters isn’t possible. This is a worthy attempt to combine the best of what science can offer with an unremitting insistence on the human significance of science’s findings. It’s also a very practical one since, Brown believes, the meaning of our existence seems to demand a heightened level of ecological responsibility.
A fascinating, and delightfully unpretentious, attempt to tackle the biggest question.