Well into the 20th century, our own Milky Way galaxy was believed to be the whole of the universe. In less than a century, our knowledge and understanding has increased by such a vast amount that it is impossible for the average person to grasp even a fraction of it. In You Are Here, Christopher Potter takes up the challenge of presenting the history of our universe in a concise and entertaining fashion for the curious non-scientists among us.
Potter has a solid grounding in science but is not himself a scientist. This background makes him one of us and allows him to explain the unfolding scientific knowledge in a way that we mortals can understand. Of course, the subject is still a complicated one, so brace yourself for a deluge of information that still hits only the high spots.
What we know of time – and of the universe, for that matter — is what we have determined and imposed upon the natural world for our convenience of understanding. Because everything is, as Dirk Gently so often reminded us, fundamentally interconnected, a linear history of the universe and the development of scientific theories and discoveries is guaranteed to end in frustration. Potter has cleverly chosen to break this book into sections built around time and measurement, rather than chronology. “1,000-10,000 billion kilometers… is the Oort cloud….” And “1 second to 3 minutes … the universe is dominated by electrons….” This system works as well as any other, and it has the advantage of providing perspective in as much as perspective can exist when we talk about infinity and eternity:
“… our natural response to the world is to put ourselves at the centre of it, and to believe in the existence of our ego, and that doesn’t seem to be how the world actually is either.”
Potter takes us from the immensity of space to the unimaginably small realm of subatomic particles. Both worlds, of course, are intertwined, which makes this history a bit of a rollercoaster ride. Potter recounts a conversation between George Gamow and Albert Einstein in which Gamow explains that “Einstein’s discovery that energy and matter are equivalent… [meant that] a star could be created out of nothing at all since the energy of its mass is exactly balanced by the energy of its gravitational field.” Gamow reported that Einstein was “so taken aback by this insight that … since we were crossing a street, several cars had to stop to avoid running us down.’” If the possibilities inherent in the universe astound even Albert Einstein, the rest of us are bound to be baffled by most of it.
It’s not all math and M-theory here, however. Potter includes the fun stuff, as well. Richard Feynman, known for his quirky humor as much as for his brilliant mind, is said to have proposed that a newly discovered particle be called a parton, after country music legend Dolly Parton; Feynman’s suggestion lost the vote and these particles are instead called quarks.
Potter’s sense of timing is excellent. He inserts tidbits such as that throughout You Are Here just when readers most need a break from the scientific jargon. The foot- and endnotes are every bit as fascinating as the text. By serving small bites, Potter feeds us the whole pie in as digestible a manner as possible.