The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People
240 pp., 25.95
Stephen O. Moshier
The Universe Within
Neil Shubin is responsible for one of the greatest fish stories in paleontology. He and his colleague Ted Daeschler wanted to find a fossil representing an evolutionary transition between fish and amphibians. They predicted the fossil might be found in rocks of a certain time and a certain place (or ancient environmental setting). That place was on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut, Canada in late Devonian period rocks where the team recovered the new species Tiktaalik roseae, fitting the bill as a genuine "missing link." The news was hot enough to deserve commentary by a Christianity Today editor. The remarkable story of this discovery was the subject of Shubin's first book, Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body (Pantheon Books, 2008).
In his second book, having established himself as a contemporary scientific storyteller, Shubin takes a more expansive look at natural history from the Big Bang to the Ice Age. This is not a dry, technical, 13.7 billion year chronology. Rather, The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets and People recalls some of the most transformative events in cosmic history, sprinkled with multiple anecdotes about the scientists who discovered them. You'll meet Henrietta Leavitt, who in 1912 contributed to our understanding of the size of the universe; Harold Urey and Willard Libby, pioneers of using isotopes in minerals and bones for geological clocks; and Seymor Benzer, whose work with fly genes led to the discovery of biological clocks in DNA. Next it's on to Marie Tharp, using cryptic Navy seafloor data to discover the rift structure of midocean ridges; and Preston Cloud, making the connection between Precambrian ironstones and the emergence of an oxygen atmosphere from its toxic primordial precursor.
The underlying theme of the book is summarized in a single concise sentence: "Life changes Earth, Earth changes life, and those of us walking the earth today carry the consequences within." Shubin describes how structures in our bodies, even the atoms that build our cells, can be traced to events from the very beginning of the universe. Time may be an arrow, but the story of the cosmos, and as well the scientific study of it, is filled with unexpected twists and turns in direction. Shubin is not concerned here with ultimate metaphysical questions of origins. He makes no disparaging comments about religion (of the kind that are sadly too common in the writings of other contemporary scientific storytellers). A Christian can accept Shubin's scientific account of cosmic history as the result of God's creative and sustaining power. The messy twists and turns of cosmic history are as surprising as those of the biblical narrative from Genesis to Revelation. Christians who are uncomfortable with an evolutionary framework for cosmic (creation) history should read this book to see, in Shubin's telling, how wonderful and interconnected are all of its parts—and consider if that isn't really consistent with the infinite, wise, and loving God who they worship, after all.
Stephen O. Moshier is professor of geology at Wheaton College
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