Nothing makes me feel small like thinking about the universe does. Never a large individual anyway, thinking how this apartment encompasses me and it is dwarfed by the small town in which I reside, it’s only a matter of moments before I become a mere microscope slide. And that’s before I even reach the level of just our planet. I’m sure Neil Shubin didn’t mean to make me feel bad when he wrote The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People. In fact, I’m pretty sure that he intended it to be a book that makes the reader feel connected to life, past and present, as well as to the stars that long ago spewed out the elements that have made such life possible. This is a big picture book. From the perspective of a paleontologist the very rocks that entomb the fossils live. The stream of particles is unbroken from the Big Bang to our little corner of the Orion Spur.
The great orthodoxies of science, however, require faith. No matter how the math works, it seems impossible to the rational mind the the entire universe could fit inside the space of the following period. Then, for some reason not yet known, bursts out to infinite but expanding size. Shubin brings many concepts together here—the effects of Jupiter on bringing earth into the Goldilocks Zone, the impact light and dark have on our bodies, whence the dinosaurs might’ve gone—and weaves a tether through it all that ends up in the hand of humanity. Evolved beings we are, but evolved from stardust as well as primordial soup. And then there’s the fact that the earth itself, as is inevitable, is slowing down. Days are growing longer yet we don’t get any more done. And we have maybe a billion years left before the sun goes Trump on us.
There is a strange comfort in being connected to all of this. And also a sense of shame as well. We are, as far as the fossil record reveals, the only species to initiate a mass extinction single-handedly. We have this whole planet and we want even more. It comes as no surprise that religious language crops up now and again in a treatment like this. After all, words divested of such concepts can take us only so far. The Universe Within is a book with a universal perspective, placing us squarely somewhere within a context that we simply can’t comprehend. And yet, reading it somehow leaves me feeling small.