Dr. Fred Bortzbooks

Review of The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos

by Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams

(Riverhead Books, 304 pages, $25.95, April, 2006)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Though the Copernican revolution marked a significant milestone in human understanding of the cosmos, it also led to a significant loss. Older cosmologies not only placed people at the physical center of the universe, but at the spiritual center as well. Each succeeding refinement in science moved Earth further from the center of everything. Then, a century ago, Einstein's relativity abolished the physical center completely.

The modern physical science of cosmology places the center of the universe nowhere and everywhere at the same time. That vision provides humanity with an opportunity to construct a spiritual cosmology based on The View from the Center of the Universe, according to cosmologist Joel R. Primack and his wife, philosopher of science Nancy Ellen Abrams.

The time has come, they write, for a new "spiritually centering cosmology." In fact, they argue, this is a critical time, and finding a new mooring for humanity's spiritual and moral center is essential. Otherwise, technological excess and abuse of scientific knowledge will threaten civilization as we know it.

Fortunately, all is not lost, Primack and Abrams assert. In Part I of the book ("Cosmological Revolutions"), they claim to have found the answer, and it is profound indeed. Read on and be enlightened, they seem to say. If people adopt the cosmic perspective they have discovered, the human race can yet be saved from itself.

Arrogant? Pretentious? Many readers will think so. Yet the authors' passionate prose and the questions they propose to explore will draw even the most skeptical forward into Part II, "The New Scientific Picture of the Universe." There, in a series of five insightful and instructive chapters, the authors focus on explaining startling developments in the science of cosmology.

The irritating tone of the opening section is not entirely absent in this one, especially as the authors introduce a series of iconic representations with a New Age flavor. Admittedly, the icons have some value to readers seeking to understand the physics behind modern cosmology. For example, the discussion of matter and energy that make up the universe relies on the cosmic density pyramid. At the pyramid's base is the recently discovered "dark energy" that makes up approximately 75% of the universe and is causing space to expand at an accelerating rate.

Above that is non-atomic dark matter, comprising 20% of the universe. It produces gravitational effects in galaxies that have been observed for more than 30 years, though its constituents are unknown. The next level of the pyramid is comprised of the 5% of the universe physicists know and understand best, atomic matter. Almost all the atoms in the universe are primordial hydrogen and helium, created in the Big Bang. The remaining atoms are heavier elements, forged in fusion reactions within several generations of stars. Earth, including all living beings on it, has formed from such stardust.

For a scientific understanding, that pyramid would be sufficient, but Primack an Abrams add a capstone and call it the "Sovereign Eye," representing intelligent life. They quite deliberately relate the cosmic density pyramid to the Masonic pyramid on the back of the U.S. dollar bill with its Latin motto that translates as "new order of the ages."

Once readers understand matter and energy, they encounter a useful icon called the cosmic spheres of time. It enhances Primack and Abrams' cogent discussion of the relationships between space and time in the theory of relativity. Our position in space-time is always at a center point: the vertex of two joined light cones. One cone represents information arriving at the speed of light from distant places in the distant past. The other represents our influence propagating into the future at the same speed. Unfortunately, the authors add an unnecessary and seemingly contrived statement that the icon illustrates humanity's central position in time.

The authors next introduce the cosmic Uroboros, a serpent like creature representing the length scales of the universe. It is wrapped into a circle, with its head, representing the scale of the entire universe, consuming its sub-sub-subatomic-sized tail at the 12-o'clock position. It is a logarithmically scaled creature with size decreasing clockwise by powers of ten in equal steps. The Sun appears at four o'clock, life-forms from insects to humans surround the six o'clock position, and atoms are at eight o'clock.

The discussion of scaling is important, because it brings quantum mechanics, and the consequent graininess of space and time, into play. It enables the authors to describe the varying regimes of physics in which each of the fundamental forces-gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces-dominate. But it also permits another contrived argument. Earth's life-forms are approximately at the center of the cosmic Uroboros, which places them at the center of length scales or, the authors say, the center of space.

Thus Primack and Abrams place humans squarely in the center of their cosmos. Then they address how the universe and its surprising structure-a foam of galaxies-came into being. In a chapter that describes "The Cosmic Las Vegas," they raise the important idea that random quantum fluctuations can lead to the birth of a universe from the vacuum. They also introduce unproven but productive ideas like cosmic inflation (which can lead to a multiplicity of universes) and ten-dimensional string theory.

In the final scientific chapter, the authors discuss the beginning and evolution of life on Earth, as well as what might be expected on other planets. That culminates in their thoughts about alien intelligence. Some readers will find their conclusions as pretentious as the introductory sections. Others may share the authors' opinion that they have discovered something profound.

The book then concludes with two chapters in a section designated "The Meaningful Universe." There the discussion becomes blatantly political. Unfortunately, the pretentious tone of the opening sections returns, creating serious damage the authors' credibility, even among readers who share their point of view about the need for urgent action to control greenhouse gases. Their presentation seems shrill and will make it easy for opponents to characterize them as extremists.

Even worse, they assert that the way to save the world is to adopt a cosmic view, in particular their new spiritually centering cosmology. It makes them seem like religious zealots recruiting for a cult. Sadly, that closes the book on a sour note, especially for readers who might otherwise find much to appreciate in the solid science of the middle chapters.

Physicist and author Fred Bortz is the author of an upcoming history of physics in the 20th century for high school, college, and public library reference collections.