This is the concluding volume of a bizarrely brilliant trilogy on the history of the universe and of life. Every school and public library - no, every family! - in America should own all three volumes in the trilogy. (The earlier volumes are "Born With a Bang" and "From Lava to Life.")
There is a rising tide of anti-science ideology in the United States, accompanied (and caused) by a vast scientific illiteracy. This is frightening not only because modern economies are so heavily dependent upon scientific knowledge but also because it is science which dissipated the ancient fear-ridden world of witches and ghosts and demons. Take away science and the old terrors can return to haunt humankind. And those terrors long served, and can still serve, to justify man's inhumanity to man.
The reasons for the anti-science tide are complex: America, for example, has an anti-intellectual tradition going back to the Romantic era of the early nineteenth century (see, e.g., E. D. Hirsch's discussion in "The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them"). Because knowledge in general, and especially in science, is necessarily "elitist," science also runs against the populism and egalitarianism long endemic in the United States.
Most disturbing is the use of anti-science propaganda by various political and cultural forces to cynically advance their own political agenda (and make some money on the side). For example, Ann Coulter, in her recent book "Godless," launched a lengthy and virtually unhinged attack on the fact of evolution.
At a higher intellectual level, the noted Jewish "neoconservative" intellectual Irving Kristol has declared, "All I want to do is break the bonds of Darwinian materialism which at the moment restrict our imagination." Robert Bork, more briefly, has announced, "Darwinism cannot explain life as we know it." (There is reason to doubt that Kristol at least really believes evolution is false: this may be just a crass ploy for political influence.)
Jennifer Morgan's trilogy is the best cure I have seen for the anti-science hysteria.
Although the evidence for evolution and modern cosmology is, logically and rationally, overwhelming, one of the big problems is that scientists have failed to grab the popular imagination in the same way that mythical religious tales of the Garden of Eden or the Tower of Babel have done.
Morgan has taken the discoveries of science and done what we scientists ourselves seem unable to do: packaged them with a sense of wonder and imagination that can show ordinary people, and most especially children, the grandeur and spectacle of the transcendental truths uncovered by modern science.
Most importantly, she is scientifically accurate: while her books read almost like books of lyrical poetry written for children, I was stunned by the care with which she hewed to the best science available as she wrote (I have a Ph.D. in theoretical physics - I was looking for errors).
This concluding volume in the trilogy discusses the Cenozoic Era, the "age of mammals," focusing especially on the evolution of human beings. Morgan's technique throughout the trilogy is to have the universe tell her own story.
In this volume, she begins by reviewing the chain of catastrophes discussed in the previous two volumes - the nearly total annihilation of elementary particles at the Big Bang, the nearby supernova that is believed to have triggered the formation of the Solar System, the "oxygen crisis" that poisoned much of the early life on earth, and of course the asteroid that ended the age of the dinosaurs.
The theme of this book is that these apparent catastrophes led to us.
She moves through the mammalian and avian radiations, briefly discusses the rise of the hominids, and finally ends the trilogy in an inspiring reminder that, in us human beings, the universe is finally able to understand and comprehend itself.
The book is aimed at children - I read it with my early grade-school children and it would certainly be appropriate through middle school. The book will necessarily offend religious creationists, but should not offend anyone with any other religious beliefs - whether Catholics, mainstream Protestants, non-Christian religious believers, or atheists. It has beautifully imaginative illustrations.
There is a useful appendix with more of the serious science for older kids or adults.
Like most scientists, I am, frankly, skeptical of any attempt to combine "spirituality" with science. In science, the only true "spirituality" is the truth. Morgan shows that this is indeed the truest spirituality of all. She grasps what it is that caused so many of us to become scientists and what motivates so many scientists to continue working at the hard task of patiently teasing out the secrets of reality.
Our generation is the first in human history to have a clear picture of the entire history of the universe and of life on earth. Every human being is entitled to share in this wondrous knowledge.
Get this book (and the other two books in the trilogy) and read it with your kids and grandkids - and for yourself. Show them the incredible beauty, grandeur, and wonder of the universe we inhabit.
This is the greatest story ever told.