‘The View from the Center of the Universe’ – Introduction

“The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering our Place in the Cosmos” by Joel R. Primac and Nancy Ellen Abrams – a book. Amazon | Book Website | Primack is a physicist who has done significant work in cosmology. He is married to Abrams, a lawyer and writer with wide-ranging interest and knowledge. | This entry is an experiment in personal blogging. I have read this book three times. I now wish to go through it one chapter at a time, writing a summary in my own words. I see this as primarily an exercise for me, but it may be of use to others.

Introduction

We’re out of touch with the universe and disconnected from it and this is a relatively new phenomenon. Past cultures have shared a world view – we don’t. Some of us have a world view based on religion, but science challenges that world view – has for four centuries – and leaves many of us adrift: We feel we inhabit a universe without meaning and we feel insignificant within it. It doesn’t have to be this way.

From a scientific perspective, we are central to the universe and significant. At first glance this looks like a huge step backwards to the perspective held for more than a thousand years where the Earth was at the center of a universe which clearly revolved around it. Man, in this view, is central to the Earth. But science – starting with Copernicus – describes a much different universe, starting with the Sun at the center of our solar system, not Earth. From that point onward nearly every new astronomical discovery made us look less and less significant. Our sun is a fairly ordinary star which is part of a typical galaxy of billions of stars which is, in turn, one of billions of galaxies in an ever-expanding universe. I mean, how insignificant can you be?

Well, you could be a flea – or a bacterium, or an elementary particle.

Seriously, one of the arguments made by the authors is that we are at the center of things in several ways. We are “in the center of all possible sizes in the universe, we are made of the rarest material, and we are living at the midpoint of time for both the universe and the Earth.”

The authors derive our central position from science – not from a misguided sense of self-importance. Of the three points just made, I’m very comfortable with the first two – I’m not sure how they derive the third one about time. As I understand it, the universe has been around for about 13 billion years, but it should last much longer than that, although I don’t know how you define when it ends. But this is just the start of the case they make, so I’ll wait.

More importantly, the authors argue that we should take our scientific understanding of the cosmos as the model for our lives and religions. I’m not sure what “religions” means in this context, unless it simply means our view of ultimate reality. While I don’t like the term “religion” here, I do see that there is plenty of mystery left – plenty of undiscovered and perhaps undiscoverable – science, so maybe this is where they are going.

They say we’re the first generation who “can know what the universe may really be saying.” I’ve seen it a little differently. I think we are the universe becoming aware of itself. Hmmmm . . . is that different? well, yes. Their view makes it sound a bit like we are outside the universe looking in – as if we are a separate entity discovering the universe. I see us as inside the universe – at one with it – and becoming self-aware in much the same way an individual can become self-aware through meditation. But again, perhaps this is where they are heading – or perhaps they will convince me to modify my view.

They plan to explore several themes that are close to my heart – my own explorations – such as:

  • “There’s no way to have intuition about things one has never experienced, and most of the universe fits into that category.”
  • “It’s ironic that seeing reality takes a lot of imagination.”
  • Big questions with scientific answer: “What is the Universe made of? How did it get this way? How big is it? Where did it come from, and where is it going? Are we alone in it?”
  • And the biggest question not addressed by science which I think can be summed up by what someone once called the two most devastating words in the English language:”So what!?”
    They put the question a bit differently – “What difference does all this make for me?”

I would ask another related question – Is there a cosmic order? And if the answer is “yes,” as I suspect it is, why should there be?

One basic approach they adapt here is to try to create a new, symbolic shorthand. They argue that “symbols are far easier to remember than a long, logical argument or a mathematical equation. . . . Each of the symbols in this book represents a fundamental but incomplete insight about the universe . . . No single symbol can ever represent the universe completely. To get a sense of the whole, we have to somehow absorb the meaning of all the symbols together, and this takes imagination.”

As I said, this is my fourth time through this book. I obviously think it is good and worth the effort. But that doesn’t mean I think everything in it is correct and for me the jury is still out on the entire approach of creating these symbols. Maybe I need to make more of an effort to accept them, but something in me has rebelled against them to this point.

This concluding sentence to the introduction, though, I like:

What matters above all is not the details but the overarching realization that we are living at the center of a new universe at a pivotal time.

Yes – but again, the implied dichotomy bothers me. We are that universe. This grand separation – this implication that the universe is something we stand out of and study – bothers me. Still, this is a very important book written by people who have a far, far greater command of the science than I do.

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