The Universe Within (book review)
by Neil Shubin (2013)
Camp Century was a city built beneath the ice in 1959 by the US military as the staging ground for ice tunnels on the scale of Arrakis to house giant missiles near Thule, far north of the Arctic Circle. Project Iceworm ended when the inexorable ice crushed the city, but the project supplied ice cores from 100,000 years ago to a young Danish geologist, who used them to support the ice-age theory of Louis Agassiz.
Down in Jerusalem, digging in Shubka Cave, Dorothy Garrod found crescent-shaped tools and unearthed the Natufians, the first people to domesticate dogs and have sculptures of people having sex. Preston Cloud crawled through Texas sagebrush and stared down a rattlesnake, revealing how rust changed the planet and ushered in the era of surface life. All in a day’s work for a cosmic paleontologist, or an historian of science.
Neil Shubin’s book The Universe Within (Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Plants, and People)[i] tells a highly personal and twisty tale, from the discovery of a tooth the size of a grain of sand sparkling in Greenland rock to the 40,000-mile ridge extending around the earth discovered by Marie Tharp, who said “You can’t find anything bigger than that, at least not on this planet.”[ii] Starting with the burst of matter and anti-matter at the Big Bang and winding his way to the Green Revolution and the possibility of cognitive enhancement, Shubin weaves a compelling story of the interrelationship of all things.
Along the way he illustrates the interrelationship of ideas and the turbulent push-pull as a new idea struggles with the old for recognition. Intellectual history is dotted with the strange and the commonplace. For every lab geek like Seymour Benzer patiently teasing out DNA and molecular machinery in the body clocks of mutant flies, there is an Emanuel Swedenborg who believed he should have one great idea per day, or a James Croll who took a year to read a book, “lingering on one page for a day or more to digest each idea.”[iii]
Relationships are in every level of our bodies, from molecules to molars. Our bodies, brains, and stomachs show the traces of evolution over millennia, “the product of an interrelationship between the planet and living things.”[iv] In turn, life has geoengineered the planet from the beginning, with cyanobacteria bringing the first gust of deadly/vital oxygen, to the seasonal respiration of the carbon cycle regulating temperature today. As Shubin explains throughout the book, “Written inside us is the birth of the stars, the movement of heavenly bodies across the sky, even the origin of the days themselves.”[v]
The Universe Within should be required reading for every fossilized bombastic professor as well as every undergraduate who is lapping up equations like they were written in stone from the dawn of time. Again and again he shows how a critical advance came because a helicopter pilot saw a strange pattern in a stream ten thousand feet below, or because a “young French geologist… intended to be his own lab rat and concocted a plan to live for two months in a cavern two hundred feet belowground, completely removed from normal human existence.”[vi] The convincingly sturdy edifice we think of as science was built on such quirky bricks, placed seemingly at random over the centuries.
Reading Shubin gives me hope for every lone thinker, hiker, data wrangler, and dreamer. Who knows where the next bored bureaucrat might be, fiddling with his pencil and thinking up a mathematical technique, as Fourier did, thereby uncovering hidden signals in terrestrial climate rhythms?[vii] Time matters; the present emerges from the past; and new opportunities occur with every new technology, concept, and person. “A human being could no more arise during the Devonian era, 375 million years ago, than could an iPad have been invented in the eighteenth century.”[viii]
So follow your genius or your lunacy, map a submarine trench or crawl along cliffs staring at fossils. It all fits together, and a thousand years from now your dull tooth or brilliant idea will be unearthed by post-human descendants, who will warble into a quantum thought-processor, and add yet another bit to the sum of science and knowledge.