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The View From the Centre of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos Hardcover – 18 Sep 2006

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Fourth Estate (18 Sept. 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007193521
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007193523
  • Product Dimensions: 16.5 x 3.4 x 24 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 826,481 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


'A superb pop-science primer on current cosmology. There are gorgeously clear explanations of relativity, dark matter and the stages of the universe after the Big Bang…Abrams and Primack are on the side of science and narrate its discoveries brilliantly.' The Guardian

‘What is remarkable about this book is that it tells the story of the cosmos, tells it with the authority of those who have ingeniously figured it out, and tells it with the clear (and successful) intent of wanting us to understand.’ Ronald Hoffmann, Nobel Prize winner, Chemistry

‘Joel Primack is not only one of [the USA]’s leading cosmologists, he is also one of the subject’s most lyrical and insightful explicators.’ Sharon Begley, Science Columnist, Wall Street Journal

‘One of the world’s leading cosmologists joins forces with a scintillating writer to offer us a scientific vision and a practical yet spiritual philosophy of life. Read this book if you’ve ever wondered about the perennial questions: “How did it all begin? What does it all mean?”’
Daniel C. Matt, author of ‘God and the Big Bang’

About the Author

Joel Primack is an award-winning physics professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and is one of the most respected researchers in his field. He was one of the principal originators and developers of the theory of Cold Dark Matter. His wife, Nancy Abrams, is an award-winning science philosopher, as well as a writer, artist and lawyer whose work has appeared in journals, magazines and books.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I count myself an ardent cosmologist who only turned to the sciences recently and I am So pleased I bought this book.
Whilst taking me on a whistle-stop tour It explains simply many other aspects of the universe etc that are mentioned in books in passing. I have learned much more by reading this book than many other more popular ones.
I would say it is on a parr with Brian Greene (whom I have read over and over again) in terms of the pleasurable engagement I get from picking this book up.
I would love a paperback copy (reading in bed is a bit awkward with a hardback)
It is written in an innovative and exciting way which carries you along explaining everything. I have to look up stuff on wikipedia often
with other books that assume I know what a WIMP is and LCDM and other acronyms. However the explaining never gets in the way it informs in context and to me this is the best way to learn and remember.
You will not be disappointed.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 71 reviews
193 of 209 people found the following review helpful
An excellent, much needed book, but with a proviso 12 April 2006
By MARTIN HELLMAN - Published on
Format: Hardcover
When I first came to these reviews, the only one was entitled "Physics Fluff", gave the book one star, and panned it based on "I flipped through this book at a bookstore and then read the Publisher's Weekly review." Having just heard Primack and Abrams speak on the book at a Stanford Physics Department Colloquium and been very impressed, I worried that people might miss the important messages they convey because of such negative comments based on a cursory review of the materials. While I am only a few chapters into the book and would normally wait to write a review (though I did hear the authors' 90 minute talk which summarizes their work), I feel it necessary to immediately counter an impression based on an even less thorough reading.

Primack has dared to explore territory where few scientists venture. (Abrams is an attorney, writer and poet, so we scientists expect her to be a bit strange - and probably wrong.) Primack and Abrams have written a book that weaves a tale of science, myth, and ethics. Mixing soft subjects with the hard sciences goes against religious doctrine - scientific religious doctrine, that is. And, as with most religions, this dogmatic approach is usually invisible to its adherents. Even though the authors are careful to distinguish the hard science from the softer areas, this is a dangerous mixture to introduce into a scientific culture.

For example, at the Physics Department Colloquium I attended, this problem was manifested during the Q&A period following the talk. People asked only about neutrinos, cosmic expansion, how we can see objects 40 billion light years away when the Universe is only 15 billion years old, etc. Primack the physicist answered all these questions expertly, while Abrams the poet stood largely mute and ignored although she had had equal time during the talk and had hit on a number of critical points - but all on the "soft" side. I racked my brain trying to come up with a question that would draw attention to the truths she had voiced and that would be appropriate in this temple of science, but could not. Instead, when I was recognized, I stated that conundrum and lamented the fact that we limit ourselves in this manner. That at least brought some recognition to Abrams' contribution and the problem we face.

In this book, there is something much deeper underlying all the wonderful cosmological physics that is beautifully explained. We live at a critical time and the fate of the earth hangs in the balance as our technological progress far outstrips our social and moral development. While to my mind, this is a scientifically established fact (e.g., see [...] other scientists will disagree.

This is not the place to argue whether or not the larger worldview espoused by Primack and Abrams, and to which I subscribe, is correct. Rather, I encourage you to read their excellent book, with one proviso. If it makes you mad to see science discussed outside of a narrow box of numbers and equations, as I suspect was the case for the reviewer mentioned above, do not read this book. There is enough anger in the world already.

But if you truly believe there is one Universe as opposed to art and science each inhabiting separate worlds (even though it is extremely difficult for our intellects to see their connection), then I heartily recommend this book. If you are scientifically trained, you may still, as I did, occasionally get a queasy feeling and want to cry out "Hey wait! How can they say that?" But, if you keep an open mind, more often than not, the second part of that interjection will be answered in a way that opens new vistas. Even in the few chapters I have read thus far, I have been well rewarded with new ideas and viewpoints.

P.S. While the audience at the Colloquium asked only hard science questions and largely ignored Abrams during the Q&A, the large stack of books that the Stanford Bookstore had on sale afterward sold very well. Also, many people came up and asked her questions after the formal Q&A was completed. So there is more hope than that story might first indicate.

P.P.S. I have since finished the book and stand by my earlier review, above. No changes were needed. The only thing I would add is that I learned some very interesting physics from the book. For example, it presents a very simple and understandable explanation for why physicists now believe that the majority of matter in the universe is "dark matter."
98 of 105 people found the following review helpful
Good in parts, but reaches beyond authors' expertise 20 Jun. 2006
By Timothy J. Bartik - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This book is really several books, two of which are quite good, and the third of which has major limitations. Part One of the book summarizes some traditional myths about the nature of the universe from different Western cultures. Part Two of the book is an informed, well-written summary of current scientific theories of the makeup, shape, size, and origin of the universe. Part Three tries to argue that these theories can give greater meaning to human life.

Parts One and Two are quite good. I believe most readers will gain a great deal of knowledge both about various cultures' myths about the universe, and modern scientific theories of the universe. I particularly liked the discussion in Part Two about how what is scientifically true depends upon the scale one is considering, and how this helps explain why many modern theories of physics are quite counter-intuitive: human intuition is made to deal with the human scale, and not the scales of quarks or galactic super-clusters.

Part Three is strained. Primack and Abrams want to somehow argue that modern theories of cosmology somehow give greater meaning and direction to human lives. I don't think they make a good case for this argument. They argue that modern cosmology shows that we are "central" to the universe, which is supposed to give us more of a sense of meaning. However, they use "central" in such a vague way that this isn't very convincing. We are told that we are "central" because we are made of rare elements and because we live in a rare bubble of space-time. So, being unusual is here defined as being "central". We also are told that we are central because we are at the middle of all sizes, in that the ratio of human sized to the minimum Planck length is of similar order of magnitude to the ratio of the size of our universe to human size. So here we are central because we are at a geometric midpoint. We are also told we are central because we are at the midpoint in the life of our planet, and the midpoint of the portion of the life of the universe in which many galaxies are visible. So here, centrality is an arithmetic midpoint in time, in which the endpoints are somewhat arbitrarily chosen. (Why wouldn't we consider the life of the universe after dark energy has moved most galaxies beyond what we can see?) We are also central because we are at the center of the universe visible to us, which also would be true at all other points in our universe. So, centrality is used in so many different senses that I think the term loses any meaning. Finally, why should we care if we are central in any of these senses of that term? I don't see why being rare, or at a geometric midpoint in size, or arithmetic midpoint in time, gives some great inherent meaning to human life.

Also in Part Three, Primack and Abrams seems to want to make an argument that the nature of the universe somehow gives a guide to what we should be trying to do with human society. So, because the universe initially inflated, and then slowed down to a more moderate expansion, this somehow is supposed to provide support for the notion that economic growth needs to slow down to avoid overusing resources. Whatever the case to be made for humans to do a better job of conserving scarce resources that are inadequately protected by the private market, such as ecosystems or the global climate - and I certainly agree we need to do a better job - I don't think that this policy issue has anything to do with cosmological theories. They also seem to imply that once we recognize the extremely long past and future life of the universe, that this will somehow point to the need for human society to take a longer-term perspective. Again, I agree that our society could benefit from a longer term perspective, but I doubt whether the case for our society taking a longer-term perspective depends upon the universe being 14 billion years old, with at least that long to go.

So, in the end, this book overreaches. When it sticks to what the authors know something about, which is different theories of the universe, it is quite good. When it tries to use this knowledge to help guide current human actions, the book is disappointing.
28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
unusual approach to cosmology 1 Jun. 2007
By Hydra - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This book attempts to place current advances in cosmology into a modern mythology that would restore the central importance to human beings in the scientific view of the world. Many readers will find this a little flakey, particularly where the argument is thin (Kabbala). But I found it thought provoking and very well written. Even if you are a hard core science buff you might find this worth your time because the author studied with Marcea Eliade at Chicago. Very original and very thoughtful in my opinion.There is nothing like it on the market that I know of worth reading. I think it may find a solid readership in time.

In addition, this book benefits from having been written for a humanities course given at Santa Cruz. This may be the best introduction to modern cosmology in that it takes the time to clarify fundamental points about dark energy and matter and aspects of inflation that are often bungled in better known and more sophisticated texts. It is clear that the authors have spent a lot of time answering questions from confused students. The care is appreciated; I wish more of these texts were so well edited. An excellent place to start. It comes with a strong recommendation from Paul Davies whose recent Cosmic Jackpot is also excellent.
31 of 37 people found the following review helpful
A quick take 12 April 2006
By Jerome M - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I am writing this as a first impression and to counter the poor review. I have just purchased the book and have had time for a quick overview. I think the poor review is unfair to this book.

The authors central insight is how we as humans need to use metaphor to understand concepts and events that are not on our scale. He has a very good overview of what we know of cosmic and quantum theory and how they are related. It is very up-to-date on our current understanding of such things as inflationary universe and string theory. It's comparable to most other current books out there on the topic. It IS very philosophical but not religious. It uses religious metaphor so it is easy to think its some mush book trying to meld current religion with science. It makes quite clear that the religious metaphor is metaphor that we are applying to something we don't understand. It gives insight into why we use metaphor in the way we do and how to properly understand it. (we misattribute things that happen on our scale to a larger scale. Such as attributing thought, which happens on the scale of our neural connections with something larger such as weather patterns.) But also goes on to provide deeper insight as to how our metaphors are true. It shows how our wonderful and unimaginably huge the creative process is in the inflationary universe but also how we are wrong to attribute "father in the sky" attributes to it. This is not a mushy spiritual book but I think quite the opposite. Its not trying to scientifically prove god and such but just the opposite trying to showing how we are wrong to apply our scale concepts to the universe and that what is true is much bigger than we imagine.

I will update this as soon as i finish the book.

PS. I have finished the book and stand by what i stated above.
17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
My cosmos finally explained 28 Feb. 2007
By R. Hein - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This book has resolved my personal quest of almost 50 years.

My first search into what I now call `cosmological science' was over 50 years ago. Every since my college days, I asked myself the question: "What is the universe and how do I fit into it?"

In the past few years, I've have read how astronomers and cosmologists were getting very close to answers to these basic questions. In the past decade, satellite observations from Hubble plus data from many Earth and satellite telescope systems have been looking at the heavens over a much greater frequency range than the visible spectrum. In addition, astronomers were becoming confident that their measurements from supernova were giving accurate measure of the expansion of the universe. Now we also understand the `snow' we see on our TV sets is just reception of radio signals that were caused by the cosmic background noise. And that goes almost all the way back to the Big Bang.

What does that have to do with this book? Well, in this recently published book (2006), the authors have taken and pieced together the major pieces of the cosmological puzzle: Who are we and where we are going?

The book is separated into three parts: The first part, three chapters, is a historical sequence of how man and mankind adopted to his environment. This part reviews religious icons, myths and mysticism. If this makes you uncomfortable, I suggest you move on to what I consider the 'main event' in Part Two. I'll warn you now: There are a lot of footnotes, sometimes 4 or 5 for each page of text. I recommend, as the authors do, that you try to read all the bold numbers as soon as possible on the page since they hold significant background or clarification information. Some of the notes are quite detailed and can be more than a page long, but are necessary in the authors' development of the facts of the subject discussed.

One of the most profound statements that I found in this book is that there is a very good chance the human race is a unique event in the history of the universe. The chance of another high level civilization existing 'out there' is very, very remote. We're alone!!

That leads to the last portion of this book, and why I think it is so terribly important. Public media, TV, magazines and newspapers have had a lot of dialog lately about how humans are not doing a very good job of preserving our planet. This book suggests that the problem is bigger than the limited view of our environment. The authors suggest that humans and their civilization can and MUST change but we have to change our way of thinking and approaching the problem.

The solution is out there: The authors only invite us to seek it in our own way.

I thought that the message in this book was important enough to purchase a copy for each of my children. My hope is that after they have finished the reading we could some good interesting dialog concerning each of our impressions of the universe as it now is, and our place in it
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