The View From the Centre Of the Universe

Review by Andrew Crumey

Published in Scotland On Sunday


The View From the Centre Of the Universe
Joel Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams
Fourth Estate, £18.99

The astronomer Carl Sagan famously said “we are stardust”, since the atoms in our bodies were forged in stellar explosions. Hence there is a joke among cosmologists that “romantics are made of stardust, but cynics are made of the nuclear waste of worn out stars”. Husband-and-wife team Primack and Abrams are evidently romantics, given the number of times they mention stardust in their guide to modern cosmology and its spiritual ramifications, but their evangelising left me feeling like a hardened cynic.

Their book tries to do two things. First it gives an outline of modern scientific ideas about the formation, structure and fate of our universe – and since Joel Primack is one of the world’s finest theoretical physicists, this part is naturally very good. The larger aim, however, is to consider our spiritual relationship with the universe, setting it in the context of ancient creation myths such as those of the Egyptians or the Bible. This is where the problems arise.

The authors define myths as “the stories that people of any culture, at any time including today, communally believe.” Cultural relativists would say that science is itself a myth, but the authors do not. Science, they say, “is closing in on the class of myths that could actually be true.” What we need, therefore, is a new myth; a story that will enable us to understand modern physics in metaphorical terms.

As an exercise in public education that is all very well, and pretty much what science popularisers have been doing for decades. Yet Primack and Abrams claim science can make life seem meaningless; we must find value by tapping into the “metaphor-ocean of the cognitive unconscious”.

Countless people from Epicurus to Richard Dawkins would disagree. What the authors forget is that their metaphor-ocean is a product of history and tradition, hence the images they find are freighted with a cultural baggage to which they appear oblivious. They include “the cosmic density pyramid”, the balance of dark matter to ordinary matter, which they depict using the Masonic pyramid shown on U.S. dollar bills – a myth appealing to some but offensive to others.

More neutral is the “cosmic uroboros”, a self-eating snake illustrating the relative sizes of objects in the universe, showing humans smack in the middle between smallest and largest. This centrality is a major theme of the book, and will be familiar to anyone who has seen the classic animated film Powers Of Ten, zooming from a person’s hand down to the smallest atom, and out to the largest galaxy. It is indeed a modern myth, though it reflects a far more ancient view, found in Dante, of mankind as the exact midpoint between the terrestrial and the heavenly. The problem is that in order to prove humans to be the centre of creation, the authors need to distort their own figures. The true cosmic middle scale is a tenth of a millimetre - it is not man that is the measure of all things, but dust.

The authors take a more optimistic view. Their personal mythology includes New Universe Day, celebrated with a Cosmic Dessert whose recipe they provide. It sounds sweet, tempting and gooey – much like their philosophy.