Potter: You Are Here

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Christopher Potter, You Are Here : A Portable History of the Universe. New York : HarperCollinsPublishers, 2009. 194 pages, with bibliography and index.

Christopher Potter was concerned that science might be causing anxiety among nonscientists, that laypeople hear some stark scientific pronouncements about the universe and our place in it as bleak and dehumanizing and they worry: what if science is all there is? Potter's remedy is to take his reader on a tour of the universe and the things in it (stars, planets, people), hoping to make it all seem less distant and incomprehensible, so that scientific descriptions of it will seem less forbidding, less cold, and less alienating.

I want to know what this universe is that attracts and repels me, and which is described by a methodology that also attracts and repels. I am attracted to science for its power, beauty and mystery, and its call to live in uncertainties; I am repelled by its power, nihilism and smug material certainty. Perhaps these polar extremes might be reconciled if I can begin to understand what it is that scientists are doing when they do what they do. [pp. 8—9]
Part of the problem is that most scientists are happy just to do what it is that they do without questioning what that is exactly. [p. 10]
Is it possible for a layman to find a path through the universe science describes? I hope so. We do not feel so excluded from any other of mankind's truth-seeking enterprises. We may or may not understand some of the products of contemporary art, but at least we feel entitled to an opinion. 'I could do better myself at home' is never a response to the latest scientific theory, but perhaps we might be more inclined to venture an opinion on, say, the Large Hadron Collider, if we knew a little about what a particle accelerator is and what this one might achieve. We might even be entitled to an opinion given its cost, not just in dollar terms but to our current physical descriptions of reality. There are, of course, places to go to find out such information – specialist magazines an designated pages in certain newspapers – but my imagined reader feels excluded even there. She longs to take a walk across the universe but does not know from where the journey sets out, let along where such a journey might end. She dos not have the benefit even of my limited scientific background, but shares my desire to find out what science does, and is drawn, as I am, so what it is that science has to tell us of the world out there, no matter how painful such knowledge might turn out to be. Scientists have dared to venture out into the universe for centuries, armed only with a clock and a ruler. Perhaps that's why madness is a quality particularly associated with these fearless adventurers. With these magic wand in hand we can follow, not too cautiously, but cautiously enough to avoid madness and confidently enough to live up to T.S.Eliot's maxim: 'Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.' [p. 12]

His approach to his subject is less an exposition and more a rhapsody on nature and the nature of science. There is an aspect of intellectual autobiography as he traverses his topics and fits the facts of the universe into a framework that describes how science operates.

He does this with admirable sensitivity to science and to the facts; his viewpoint can at times be very personal but he does not distort science into something that it is not. I found this remark in my reading notes: "His explanation of light (pp. 118—120) is notably clear and direct, giving a nice feel for sophisticated field concepts without mysticism, condescension, or imprecision."

We believe in electricity not because we know what it is (not really, not deep down), but because the scientific description of it explains a great deal of phenomena. Electricity fits into an overall story that is consistent with our belief in other phenomena – magnetism, say. We can build up a web of description, the strands of which are stronger for being a part of the whole web, that captures and holds more and more of what we call material reality. [p. 54]
You believe there is something because you know you exist. You believe in your own ego. Science is a way of translating that individual experience of the world into a collective experience. We can personally validate a scientific description of reality by repeating an experiment, or by believing that experiments are repeatable, or, most apparently, by simply noting the changing nature of the world that technology creates around us. Technology is our evidence that science is getting somewhere. And by somewhere we mean our ability to create simulacra of reality that are the material world. [p.55]

This is a book I almost judged—unfairly—by its cover. The jacket blurbs seemed ambiguous to me and I feared a new-age mumbo-jumbo masquerading as the deep meaning behind science and life, the universe, and everything. Happily I was wrong. Had I read the following paragraph in isolation when I first picked up the book I might have dropped it right away, but reading it as part of the conclusion to the book, after all that had come before, it fit comfortably and rationally into the story he was telling about how science works, how it sees the world around us, and the relevance that outlook has for everyone.

For the time being at least, the story of the material world remains our story alone. It begins with a description of a universe too simple to be fully apprehended, and ends with storytellers too complex to be fully described. In the balance, we place on the one side the universe as a whole, and in the other the human brain that conceives it. If it is something about our brain that appears to grant us privilege in the universe, we might wonder if there is any meaningful separation to be made between brain and universe. Ultimately we might wonder if there is any meaningful separation to be made between anything. We only appear special because we can't make a separation between the story and the storyteller. As Copernicans and materialists, however, the story continues because we ask ourselves: What is it to tell a story? And what might other storytellers look like? Is there something special about our brains that allows humans to find meaning in objects and symbols, and to organise the past and present into a conception of the future? If there is, then what is that something? [p. 266]

In his introductory remarks Potter said that he tried to write the book that he wanted to read. It is not the book I would have written, and that's good: the world needs good explanations from different viewpoints and differing experiences, said in many different ways.

I thought it was a very good book: it led me to think about interesting things in interesting ways. Even if it wasn't the perfect book for me, it undoubtedly will be the perfect book for a number of readers who would like to read a book exactly like this one.

-- Notes by JNS

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