Award-winning science writer Cole (The Hole in the Universe, 2001, etc.) offers a “love letter to the universe and those who explore it” in an essay collection culled from her popular LA Times column.
Looking at recent scientific discoveries as well as ongoing oddities and conundrums, the author employs a short-take format in which each commentary rarely exceeds three printed pages. Within this framework, merely rendering many of these subjects (barely) comprehensible to lay readers is in itself no mean feat, but Cole has an even more ambitious aim: to reveal the universe as “wholly relevant to politics, art, and every dimension of human life.” The wide range of phenomena she covers relates principally to physics, cosmology, mathematics, and astronomy, but the author is almost too adroit in quelling the looming suggestion that higher mathematics might be necessary for more than borderline understanding of the universe as scientists are able to see it today. Instead, Cole puts useful groundings into perspective: humans are able to survive and evolve on Earth, she lectures, only because waves of previous microbial inhabitants have “polluted” its natural atmosphere (carbon dioxide) with enough oxygen to sustain us. Nor should we forget that “everything we sense from the outside world is created in our minds from heavily processed and filtered information.” Then there are the carefully strewn factual curios: “About 10 percent of the average human body’s dry weight consists of bacteria,” for example, or “100 pounds of [material originally from] Mars ‘rains’ on our planet every year.” Her tendency to convey the universe in so many unrelieved, disconnected fragments may be a problem for readers expecting more organizing insights.
Cleverly entertaining “stand-up” science in search of a cosmic punch line.