The orderly progression of the heavens has comforted humans since the dawn of time, making unusual events in the skies a source of anxiety. Dartmouth professor Marcelo Gleiser gives an entertaining history of the interplay between apocalypse and astronomy.
As in his popular The Dancing Universe, Gleiser (physics and astronomy, Dartmouth Coll.) argues that science and religion spring from a single challenge to the human spirit: anxiety over our mortality, which defines us and gives our life meaning. Thus, the different narratives used by science (the Big Crunch) and religion (the apocalypse) to reconcile our finite existence with an apparently infinite universe are not mutually exclusive; they share an awareness of our limited time on Earth, which motivates us to understand the universe and our place in it. While Gleiser offers an extensive discussion of modern scientific cosmology, his account is not overly technical and is easily accessible to the average reader. One measure of how much a reader has enjoyed a book is the number of margin notes and underlined passages that mark the text, and this reviewer's copy has been copiously highlighted in three different colors. Strongly recommended for both public and academic libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/02.] James Olson, Northeastern Illinois Univ. Lib., Chicago Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
If the universe is infinite, then its possibilities are infinite as well. But in How the Universe Got Its Spots the astrophysicist Janna Levin insists that infinity works as a hypothetical concept only, and that it is not found in nature. "Tormented," Levin writes of those who ponder the largest questions of existence, and she wonders whether such mental strain causes madness. The Pythagoreans drowned wayward members. Newton stabbed himself in the eye with a tiny dagger while staring at the sun. And Levin herself tries to grasp the finer points of astrophysics as she struggles with her relationship with a musician boyfriend whose temperament does not always match her own. Knowledge can bring alienation, but comfort and connection, too. She writes, "We often understand math when plain English simply isn't as useful."
When Alexander the Great met the Celts on the banks of the Danube in the fourth century B.C., he asked their chieftains what frightened them most. "We fear only that the sky will fall on our heads," Marcelo Gleiser relates in The Prophet and the Astronomer . Gleiser's book is a careful amalgam of philosophy, physics, and astronomy, tracing our contemplation of the cosmos from the big bang to the big crunch. "Time," Gleiser writes, "is the absence of perfection," and mortality creates a desire for knowledge. The search for answers to unknowable questions places the prophet and the physicist on the same side. Both Levin and Gleiser credit Einstein for his help in reframing our relationship to the sky: he theorized that space is curved, because time and space conform to accommodate the constant of the speed of light. As such, as long as time allows, we are drawn toward illumination. (Lauren Porcaro)
Polymath Gleiser (Natural Philosophy, Physics, and Astronomy/Dartmouth) puts his eclectic resume to good use in this exploration of how religious and scientific views of life and death come together in the skies. In The Dancing Universe: From Creation Myths to the Big Bang, Gleiser attempted to bridge the gap between the spiritual and the scientific by focusing on how men and women of religion and of the laboratory have explained the origins of the universe to themselves and others. Here, he continues the discussion of whether religion and science can be reconciled, but now Gleiser focuses on endings more than origins. Whether grounded in the spiritual, the scientific, or some of each, humans are driven to understand the passage of time, which always ends in death. A great part of their effort at understanding is directed at the skies, where signs of an apocalyptic end could appear at a moment's notice. Religions wrote down the implications of their sky-watching in books, including the Christian Bible. Those accounts, such as the Revelation to John ("its inclusion in the New Testament was a very controversial issue in the early church"), became so much a part of individual heritage that they inevitably influenced scientific thought. Gleiser surveys the intersection of religious storytelling and scientific theory from the pre-Socratic philosophers of ancient Greece to contemporary cosmologists. He wears his knowledge of astronomy, physics, and philosophy lightly as he surveys centuries of thought for the nonspecialist reader. Relying heavily on images and analogies from everyday phenomena, Gleiser largely succeeds in his effort to avoid jargon that would alienate the scientifically challenged. An intellectual accomplishment that illuminates the magic and the wisdom of the heavens above.