A New York Times science writer contemplates the human compulsion to search for order and purpose in the origin of the universe and the development of life on earth. Johnson (In the Palaces of Memory, 1990) chooses the spiritually and geologically multilayered landscape of New Mexico as the setting for this impressive meditation. The gnarled terrain is home to a seemingly motley collection of ideologies: the Roman Catholicism of the Spanish conquistadors, the pioneering science of the nuclear physicists of Los Alamos, the mushy crystal-gazing of transplanted New Agers, the overlapping cosmologies of different groups of Tewa Indians. But as Johnson proceeds to show, all these groups share the uniquely human drive to find patterns, to explain reality, to find a comforting reason why we are here. At bottom, is the Big Bang any more comforting or provable than the creation myths of the Tewa? By the time Johnson has finished his own tour of quantum physics, the menagerie of atomic particles begins to seem like nonsense, invented for the convenience of physicists whose experiments needed them. The progress of science turns out to be ""a house of cards, each [layer] resting on a shakier foundation and each testifying to our theoretical bravado."" No matter how ingenious we are, we are still here, stuck on a microdot in the universe. Johnson takes us through some of the best theories: the concept of information as a fundamental force; various attempts to explain the origin of life; the question of whether human complexity is a miraculous fluke of natural selection or an inevitable and repeatable evolution. Johnson's careful and deliberate explanations make you think, which is rare and wonderful, but the blizzard of concepts and scientists may eventually glaze a fascinated reader's wide eyes. A journey along the edge of human comprehension: accessible and even elegant, but a bit overstuffed.