You Are Here: A Portable History of the Universe

Published By: Harper

Book Category: Non-Fiction, Science

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Reviewed by Gene Hayworth

“Orientation,” the introductory chapter to Christopher Potter’s new book You Are Here: A Portable History of the Universe, contains twenty-two direct quotes from sources as varied as King Lear, Alan Dressler, Bertolt Brecht, John Updike, and Gottfried Leibniz. In the space of eleven pages the author poses over 20 questions. Though Potter’s wide and impressive knowledge is evident, reading this introduction is a bit like having a conversation with an extremely intelligent great aunt whose mind has begun to wander, or like randomly skimming the entire set of the “World Book Encyclopedia” on a rainy Saturday afternoon.

The book is both charming and exacerbating. Though the intent of chapter two, “26 Degrees of Separation,” is to underscore the vast expanse of the universe by quantifying the measure of things in scale degrees from 1-10 meters in size to those over 10 billion light years away, the effect is a kind of tedious listing. “The longest extant land animal is the python…Blue whales can grow up to 30 metres long…The longest extant animal is the bootlace worm…” Potter catalogues.

And Potter has a tendency to drift into curious speculation: “If there are aliens out there measuring reality with a stick,” he notes, “then we need to convince ourselves that the way we define length is universal. If we don’t have such universal agreement, there will always be the possibility that when an alien describes reality something quite different from our reality will be described.” When we do encounter aliens, it is hard to accept the suggestion that differences between our measuring systems will be the primary topic of discussion.

Potter describes his ideal reader as someone who “does not have the benefit even of my limited scientific background…” It is clear that he intends to fill those gaps. His biography of the universe will educate some readers and puzzle others.

Despite its flaws, the book is redeemed by Christopher Potter’s evident enthusiasm and his impressive mastery of science, literature, and philosophy.

Armchair Interviews agrees. Google the author to read about this fascinating man’s history.

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