Neil Shubin – The Universe Within

The story of life and the universe can be mesmerizing. In his book The Universe Within Neil Shubin illustrates the history of the universe – all 13.7 billion years of it – by means of the much shorter history of scientific discovery of it. As parameters for a work of popular science go, they don't come much bigger. But Shubin succeeds brilliantly in meshing the shorter narrative with the great one: how 13.7 billion years of history have formed and fine-tuned ourselves and all living things.

The Universe Within by Neil ShubinYour Inner Fish by Neil Shubin

Neil Shubin, a distinguished paleontologist at the University of Chicago, already has form here. His first book, Your Inner Fish, described how he himself discovered the remarkable fossil Tiktaalik in the snowy wastes of northern Canada. Tiktaalik is one of a number of remarkable fossils that provide insights on the transition between fish to land-living vertebrates. Shubin used it as a starting point to describe how all subsequent lifeforms bear within ourselves the history of our fishy forebears. He also introduced to a wide audience a remarkable, and fairly recent insight: from fish to fly to human, the development form from fertilized egg to our hugely complex, profoundly different bodies, is under the control of a genetic toolkit that is essentially similar.

Shubin has even grander objectives for his narrative this time. Describing the Big Bang, Shubin reminds us that had certain parameters been ever so slightly different, the universe would have developed in a radically different direction - or not at all. He shows how some of the fundamental phenomena of our world – the trajectory of the sun, night and day – are hardwired within our bodies. The end of the most recent ice age produced unusually benevolent geographical conditions that permitted the development of agriculture; and in turn promoting genetic changes to equip us for the subsequent dietary shift.

Shubin's magisterial book weaves fantastic vignettes about a host of lesser known with fundamental insights about how the world works. It could even be described as a materialist account of creation. It also negotiates the sometimes troubled waters between different scientific disciplines so skillfully that I experienced a number of revelatory moments when reading it; like when the work of Seymour Benzer and Ronald Konopka on the body clock is explained, or when he tells the story of when Bruce Heezen and Marie Tharps describes the giant ridges in the center of the world's oceans. It only remains for me to wonder what Neil Shubin can possibly do for an encore.