on 20 March 2011
This is a well thought through book looking at some of the great questions for mankind; how did we get here? Why are we here?, and finally, Where are we going? A secularist book, Atkins delves into his view of the answers with clarity. The book's style can make it hard going - it's as if he is lecturing to an audience of grammar school adults, and sometimes this comes through as being a little patronising. But this is the author's didactic voice coming through, his professional lecturing techniques being used to underline or illustrate the narrative.
And it is the narrative that comes to the fore throughout this book. In places this is a tough book to read through, with complex ideas and thoughts, requiring explanation, being dealt with in detail. But ultimately Atkins is successful. He argues his points well, and his voice is consistent along the way. This is no Professor Brian Cox approach, no populist easy reading, but an academic work with breadth and vision that ultimately leaves the reader thinking and wondering about the universe of which we are part.
Definitely worth a read and it is a book I shall be returning to.
Any book with the mission statement 'a scientist's exploration' in the sub-head should tell you something. Yet I came at this with an open mind... and within a mere ten-pages found myself having to work at enjoying this. But if you can apply yourself, and you have the time to give it, there is much to be gained from On Being.
On the whole, On Being is a great idea: colliding the secular/scientific with the inevitability of answering such a gigantic question about existence in a world possessed of spirituality, to present an entire over-view of what existence surely can be. It's just the right length (perhaps, novella is an apt gauge), and is nicely concise in terms of scope, preferring to include the author's personal preferences instead of provide a one-stop list to the subject of existence thinking.
Yet, for me, On Being fell down because it is just so utterly prosaic. Not so much like a thesis, where scientific jargon renders the work exclusive to the already converted, but more in the line of overly poetic. Don't get me wrong, there's a great deal to commend about this work, and I have absolutely no opinion that the author is anything other than a very smart and crucial thinker. It's just that this book feels a bit too much like a labour of love: The love landing on the author's side, and the labour handed a bit too far over to the reader to affect the required inclusiveness such great thought demands.
Which is a shame, because On Being is a rather brilliant, and somewhat individual take on the idea of romance of great thinking; is free from excess baggage, presenting itself as a kind of anchored, poetic musing when it could so easily have been a chewy thesis. But it does tend to operate like a thesis at times, with the author tending to introduce a question, then immediately spending just a tad too long dissecting the question's base meaning, in order to move on without confusion. Which is all fine and dandy, but does tend to slow the pace right down to a crawl - a motion which could so easily risk losing some readers along the way, as they wonder who exactly this work is intended for.
That said, On Being is a good example of excellent writing: smart, informed and passionate. It's just a little too much at times. A bit like a very rich chocolate mousse, when a bit more basic sustenance is required and no other food is on hand.
Many, if not most, non-scientists, and not a few scientists themselves, would probably say that there are limits to the questions that science can answer. Peter Atkins is not among them. In the very first sentence of the Prologue to this book he firmly states that "The scientific method can shed light on every and any concept ....", and later, "I consider that there is nothing that it cannot illuminate". The remaining Prologue is a brief justification for these statements. The rest of the book is a description of the journey from the `cradle to the grave', both for ourselves as humans and for the universe as a whole, as seen from the perspective of the scientific method. Science does not yet have the answers to everything of course. Thus the opening chapter `Beginning' describes the very earliest days of the universe, where there are still fundamental questions that remain unanswered by physics. His point is that science has the tools to provide answers that other systems of belief, such as religions, do not. The second chapter, Progression, concentrates on evolution and includes a scathing attack on creationists and their beliefs. It is followed by two chapters on the remarkable processes of birth and death as applied to humans. Then finally we come to `Ending' where he discusses how both life on Earth and the universe as a whole will end, and here he cannot resist ridiculing some of the more extreme religious views, although I suspect very few people now hold them. The book ends with a short Epilogue where he makes a powerful plea for the scientific method and rejoices in the "... joy of true comprehension." that it brings.
This is a wonderful little book, that summarises with whit and clarity the beliefs so many people about the great questions of existence, but who do not have the mastery of prose that Peter Atkins has. My only gripe is against the publisher, who has put this very short (pp105) book out as a hardback and so at the relatively high price of £10.99.
on 13 March 2011
The principle of this book is to use scientific method to question the assumptions or conclusions of religious belief; no particular religion is the focus but rather the belief in a higher being as being in direct conflict with science. Peter Atkins, the author, makes clear in his introduction that his belief is in science and the principle that: We have much to learn, and that because something is not yet understood, it does not prove the existence of a higher being or justify religious belief.
The method of writing is clear and I would say non-offensive - it consists of "Here's the science we know so far. Here's some ideas which are pure speculation but are as provable as religion. Make your own conclusions". The topics discussed are Creation, Birth, Death and the after-life. At just over 100 pages it's a short book but it's got a lot of content (I wouldn't have wanted the book to be much longer) and if you're a fan of Richard Dawkins you may well enjoy this.
However, there is an issue with this book which I see other reviews have touched on which is the style of writing. For me it's written in the style of a headmaster giving a lecture to a school assembly describing what information you know already, what you need to know, and when you should consider each point. I really don't think it needs this style and for me is a real negative on the book. There's too much of the author's ego coming through in the book for my liking, the choice of some words appears to deliberately awkward almost inviting the reader to admit their grasp of the English language is not as good as the author's.
In scoring this book, I would have given 5 stars for the subject matter but the writing is a real irritant.. and in a book, that's quite important.
In many respects this is a super book. I am very much a person of faith and come from a science background. So Peter Atkins style of writing is one I am familar with. Mr Atkins shows us well his background as a scientist. Plus how that mixes with his views of the meaning of existence. I am not sure that Mr Atkins is fully 'sure' himself - which is fine and makes for a good read. This is not a book to read just before bedtime!
It takes time, often reading a page twice.
The section when the Atkins looks at his own death at first I found uncomfortable - but on re reading it can fully understand why it was written like this as it makes me think hard about my ending, my death. Which of course will come - so this read became personal. Even life changing ???
Not a long book.
on 11 May 2011
I found this a bit of a mixed bag. I was reading it off the back of a few good reviews and I was hoping that it was going to tackle some of "the great questions of existence" in an entertaining way whilst providing a few insights that I hadn't encountered before. On the whole, the book did this, but I felt there was a little too much emphasis on the issue of religion vs science and that it suffered a little as a result.
Subjects like creationism, for instance, have been covered so extensively in other popular books of this type that the fairly lengthy diatribe on the matter came across as a little needless. I don't subscribe to creationism, I've frankly never encountered anyone that does and, to be honest, I doubt there would have been many creationists putting this into their wish lists as soon as it came out. Yet creationists are probably the only people to which these arguments are relevant because the rest of us are clear in our consensus that some form of evolution exists. For me, the balance should have been weighted a little more towards the content - the many genuinely interesting insights that the author brings to the table - rather than the tired old routine of disproving the lowest common denominator.
A great book could have been written here, but there almost seems to have been an explicit decision to chase the Richard Dawkins market and the overall experience ends up being about half as enjoyable as it should be. This is particularly true of the style of writing which, as others have mentioned, is so 'convivial' that I couldn't help but find it annoying. A more focused discussion of the issues would have been far better, both in terms of content and readability.
Peter Atkins certainly knows how to turn out a well-crafted pithy putdown. He knows how to write well. He has several moments of great insight.
But, whilst he knows his science, he does not know his limits.
In this brief attempt at a tour-de-force of the big questions--Beginning, Progression, Birth, Death and Ending--Peter Atkins sets out the atheist's systematic atheology in contradistinction to the Christian's systematic theology.
However from the opening paragraph of the prologue to the closing paragraph of the epilogue the book it is marked by a naïve optimism in the infallibility of man as scientist, the ability of the scientific method to encompass everything, a setting up of strawmen for heroic demolition, and an almost blindness to his own blind faith in science.
His insistence from the opening paragraph that science can elucidate everything, and that if science can't elucidate it then it mustn't be, is to beg the question. He takes a tool for measuring and explaining the physical universe and uses it to pronounce that non-physical issues don't exist. As I heard somewhere else - "That is to measure the yardstick by the cloth".
Sometimes he just seems to invert things - His pronouncement that "All creation myths struggle to account for the presence of something where previously there was nothing" (p1) doesn't square with the Bible. In it there is no struggle: God always was, and he spoke everything into being. On the other hand - ask a scientist how nothing become something and watch a struggle. He insists (p26) that to believe in a creator God diminishes the quest for knowledge--"God just did it"--ignoring the fact that many of the great scientists of preceding centuries believed in God, and it was precisely because they believed that God is a God of order and infinite wisdom that they pursued and investigated it.
However he does nail the inconsistency of theistic evolution (p34), asking what does it reveal about the personality of such a God who leaves "a charnel house of guts through evolutionary history, certainly suggests caution in accepting the conventional reports of his infinite benevolence"
I'll not go through it page by page or chapter by chapter, but his chapter on death summed up his methodology. He describes what happens at death and how the body decays from the moment of death--fascinating stuff, there is no denying his knowledge and writing ability. But on the basis of that he pronounces that therefore death is irreversible. Having closed his mind to the possibility of an external life force this is the only conclusion he can come to. However, if he had looked less at death and more at the accounts of the Jesus' resurrection he might have been better served. The disciples were as convinced as Atkins is about the irreversibility of death - that's why they took some convincing that Jesus was alive.
The one thing that he, in common with Dawkins, Hitchens and others, doesn't do is to interact with the empirical reality of Jesus Christ. Atkins is adamant that he is to be believed where he speaks on things that are observable, yet fails to interact with the observations of eye-witnesses to the one event/person that would provide him with sufficient evidence to undermine his confidence.
He is guilty too of chronological snobbery insisting that with our much greater knowledge we wouldn't believe claims of a virgin birth, as if the 1st century Palestinians thought it was perfectly normal. In doing so he also displays his own failure to read the primary texts, ie. to look at the evidence. Such sly digs only serve to betray his own ignorance.
For all that, I wanted to give it 4 stars - for I enjoyed it. I certainly didn't shake my faith; rather it sharpened it, and gave me a few sermon illustrations (the description of death). And he has some glorious phrases, my personal favourite being "coming as it does to within an ant's fingerwidth of a cop out" (p2). But given other books I've given 4 stars to, I can only give it 3.
Splendidly written bombast. One for the fans to cheer loudly at, for thoughtful readers to wince at, and for sloppy Christians to sharpen their thinking on.
Given the glut of books on this subject matter available, you would think that the author, Peter Atkins would have written in an engaging manner that made the subject matter more accessible to the general public. Atkins took a unique stance against people who believe in God, and not in a good way (not that I'm religious in any way), but there are very few authors who can do this and get away with it, without appearing one sided and opinionated.
Presenting cosmology in layman's terms is something that should be carefully undertaken. Either target the book at those who understand the subject matter and who you can talk to in a very technical language or leave it to those who are engaging and witty. The book came across as one mans ramblings that weren't particularly engaging. If you want to read good books on cosmology in layman's terms, then I would recommend reading The Grand Design: New Answers to the Ultimate Questions of Life by Stephen Hawking, The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory by Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time and the Texture of Reality (Penguin Press Science) also by Brian Greene and You Are Here: A Portable History of the Universe by Christopher Potter.
on 26 July 2015
If I'd realised this slim volume was merely dedicated to God bashing I would never have taken it off the shelf. I took it because the title "On Being" promised the prospect of some deep illumination, or at least some juicy insights to chew over. Unfortunately it reaks unashamedly of bias and for me at least failed to cover any new territory. It consistantly left me disappointed and unsatisfied, and it's patronising tone irritated enough to provoke this briefest of reviews. Even his remark that scientists were revolutionaries (where I mentally punched the air in sympathetic agreement) was, in reflection, more about the process of science than their ability to shed light on the nature of being.
This is undoubtedly a fascinating subject, and I appreciated the author's declared approach, outlining his position on science as the ultimate provider of the answers to life, the universe, and everything. He obviously would like to totally dismiss religious explanations, but graciously concedes that there are tiny little gaps where the religious explanation currently offer more than science can. Atkins' belief, however, is that these gaps are becoming fewer in number, and reducing in size, as scientific advances provide more of the answers. He seems confident that this progress will continue, although he stops short of claiming that science will provide ALL the answers.
The book (little more than a pamphlet, really) does however fall down because of Atkins' writing style. I am not an uneducated or stupid man, and I am not unfamiliar with this subject area, yet I found much of his prose to be impenetrable, both in its subject matter and the style of the writing. There seemed to be no willingness or desire on the part of Atkins to make the subject more accessible or "alive"; his occasional attempts at humour are quite frankly lame; several analogies served to confuse more than to inform; and certain points were advanced in a way which seemed designed to make them appear as difficult to follow as possible.
I believe Atkins is an author of textbooks, and his style may well be better suited to such literature. He is not a good enough writer to engage readers, to enthuse them into looking forward to the next page or chapter (or even his next book). Overall I was disappointed in this, as I had hoped for something a lot more clear and concise. It's still a decent read, if a little unfair on the reader, who may feel let down by the author's failure to get his point across more efficiently.