It’s the kind of idea you have in the shower or staring out at a starry sky, but it’s also the spirit behind Neil Shubin’s “The Universe Within: The Deep History of the Human Body” – an easy reading pop-science journey on all of the physical, chemical, geological, biological processes and wonders that make us the humans we are today.
“The Universe Within” is a thought-provoking look into the origins of elements, celestial bodies, environments, cells, organs, and societies. Shubin reminds us that our daily lives are shaped in almost every way by the history of the universe extending back 13 billion years. This story evokes a number of curious “shower thoughts” – reminiscent of Carl Sagan or Bill Nye – but it’s also not a surprising or even terribly enlightening story. It’s more of a polite reminder of the basic science we know and tend to forget about while we’re busy breathing, eating, sleeping, driving, walking, synergizing, Snap-Chatting, home-brewing, Netflixing, Apple-watching or whatever else cool people are doing these days.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a solid pop science book. There’s some cool factoids and interesting observations of the natural world that you won’t run across every day. Shubin certainly is an expert at bringing science to the masses – he’s the provost of Chicago’s Field Museum, a University of Chicago professor and has his own popular PBS miniseries “Your Inner Fish,” based off his eponymous book. We need expert scientists like Shubin who can explain complex topics of archaeology, atmospheric science and human physiology to people like me (a lowly social “scientist,” at best).
However, I often felt like compelling topics were left unexplored, or the subject was changed before an interesting idea had been fully exhausted. The book could have used about 100 more pages to expand on its topics and bring home the “wow” factor. It could easily have done that – it tops out at less than 200, and this includes his anecdotes from a fossil expedition in Greenland (nice and all, but the stories don’t really add anything).
“The Universe Within” is a quick read, very straight-forward, devoid of jargon or scientific complexity. Which is why it both interested and disappointed me. I was hoping for a few more in-depth explanations of human chemistry, physics, etc. But this is a broader, more superficial survey of all kinds of natural science topics. It’s a good starting point if you want to dip into the shallow end of our vast and fascinating universe. I, however, was hoping to do a cannonball off the high-dive.
If you want more depth on astronomy, physics, chemistry, etc., try Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything.” As for earth science, including geology, biology and evolution, I’d recommend “Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth” by Richard Fortey. However, if you subscribe to “I fucking love science” on Tumblr and want to read a brief, entertaining reminder of all the things you learned in your university science core, read “The Universe Within.” Or just watch an episode of “The Cosmos” – ’bout the same experience, really.