In The Universe Within, Neil Shubin reveals the connection between the evolution of the cosmos and the evolution of the human body.
Just as the history of the earth is written in the rocks, so too is the universe’s 14-billion-year history written in the human body. Starting at the smallest level, with our very molecular composition, Shubin explores the question of why we are the way we are, tracing the formation of the planets, the moon, and the globe of Earth through the development of the organs, cells, and genes that make up human life.
Having spent the better part of my working life staring at rocks on the ground, I’ve gained a certain perspective on life and the universe. My professional aspiration—uncovering clues to the making of our bodies—lies inside the baked desert floor or deep within the frozen Arctic. While this ambition may seem eccentric, it is not much different from that of colleagues who peer at the light of distant stars and galaxies, map the bottom of the oceans, or chart the surface of barren planets in our solar system. What weaves our work together are some of the most powerful ideas that mankind has ever developed, ones that can explain how we and our world came to be.
These notions inspired my first book, Your Inner Fish. Inside every organ, cell, and piece of DNA in our bodies lie over 3.5 billion years of the history of life. Accordingly, clues to the human story reside within impressions of worms in rock, the DNA of fish, and clumps of algae in a pond.
While I was thinking about that book, it became clear that worms, fish, and algae are but gateways to ever deeper connections—ones that extend back billions of years before the presence of life and of Earth itself. Written inside us is the birth of the stars, the movement of heavenly bodies across the sky, even the origin of days themselves.
During the past 13.7 billion years (or so), the universe came about in the big bang, stars have formed and died, and our planet congealed from matter in space. In the eons since, Earth has circled the sun while mountains, seas, and whole continents have come and gone.
Discovery after discovery in the past century has confirmed the multibillion-year age of Earth, the sheer vastness of the cosmos, and our species’ humble position in the tree of life on our planet. Against this backdrop, you could legitimately wonder if it is part of the job description of scientists to make people feel utterly puny and insignificant in the face of the enormity of space and time.
But by smashing the smallest atoms and surveying the largest galaxies, exploring rocks on the highest mountains and in the deepest seas, and coming to terms with the DNA inside every species alive today, we uncover a sublimely beautiful truth. Within each of us lie some of the most profound stories of all.
Excerpted from The Universe Within by Neil Shubin. Copyright © 2013 by Neil Shubin. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Neil Shubin is the author of the best-selling Your Inner Fish, which was chosen by the National Academy of Sciences as the best book of the year in 2009. Trained at Columbia, Harvard, and the University of California at Berkeley, Shubin is associate dean of biological sciences at the University of Chicago. In 2011 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.
“This book is, quite literally, cosmic: a profound story told with Shubin’s usual clarity and passion.”
—Oliver Sacks, author of Hallucinations
“What is special about the book is its sweep, its scope, its panorama—how physics, biology, geology, chemistry, and seemingly every other science are brought to bear on the most intricate details of human life. . . . Shubin makes it all seem rather glorious.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“An illuminating account of how life on earth is shaped by the rhythms of the cosmos. . . . [A] dazzling excursion into life, the universe, and everything.”
—Times Literary Supplement
“A new, fresh way of telling the story of life, the universe and everything. . . . Shubin illuminate[s] the story of discovery in unexpected and hugely enjoyable ways.”
—The Guardian (London)
“Shubin shows that all creation, from the big bang on, is packed in [the human body]. . . . In short, universal history made us what we are. Wow.”
—Booklist (starred review)
“Shubin illuminates, with a Carl Sagan–like clarity and elegance, the specifics behind the Joni Mitchell lyric ‘We are stardust.’”
—Time Out Chicago
“Even those familiar with the basic underpinnings of how we evolved will find The Universe Within engaging. It is laced with Shubin’s own fossil-hunting adventures and filled with colorful tales of historical figures.”
“The Universe Within gives us an appreciation of how we are just small specks and small moments in time. But it also challenges us to take steps to protect our environment so our world can last a little longer.”
“Shubin shares the findings of some of the great scientific specialists —as well as those of a few unsung heroes. But he also explains how a generalist’s appreciation of their work is still possible, simply by looking inside the human body.”
“An exhilarating ride through the workings of science and . . . a fascinating glimpse into the vast universe’s many constituents . . . To read The Universe Within is to arrive at all sorts of wonders.”
“Wonderful . . . We need writers [like Shubin] who can make deeper connections between people and the natural world around them, as well as showing how that interrelatedness has played out over the deep time of geology.”
—The Seattle Times
“A volume of truly inspired science writing . . . Shubin deftly balances breadth and depth in his search for a ‘sublimely beautiful truth.’”
“Engrossing . . . An intelligent, eloquent account of our relations with the inanimate universe.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)