A single science for our young universe

Evolving Cosmos
March 3, 2006

For the scientist, knowledge is constantly becoming more specialised. Some top researchers have only a dozen colleagues in the world with whom they can discuss their work in depth. But for the informed outside observer, the opposite is happening, and this is the tale Govert Schilling tells here in a picture book with startling illustrations. In his view, we know so much that we are starting to have a single subject called "science" again. All that information is converging to form an entity where it is hard to tell where, say, astronomy ends and biology begins.

Although he is best known as an astronomy writer, Schilling uses this book to paint a far wider canvas than the universe as revealed by the telescope. His chapter on life asserts that once carbon atoms had formed, "the course leading finally to organic compounds and prebiotic evolution was irreversibly set". By this he means that in interstellar space, chemical reactions that produce complex organic molecules are bound to occur.

We meet physics, which produces the particles and forces that make up the universe, astronomy to supply the galaxies, stars and planets, biology to people the Earth, and even the strange science of cosmogony, perhaps a reversion to physics, that tells us how it will all end.

Although the story is a coherent one, it has its unsatisfactory moments.

One is the use of the term "evolution" to describe the development of stars and galaxies. This misleading terminology is not Schilling's fault - everyone uses it.

But there is another key difference between describing the findings of astronomy and those of biology. In astronomy, we can explain almost the full range of what the universe has to offer, from asteroids to galaxy clusters, but not so with biology.

Biology is as history might be if we knew the history of England only. Life on Earth is not a predictor for understanding life in the universe. As Schilling points out, no DNA has been found among the many complex organic molecules we have identified in interstellar gas clouds. But whether he is right that a watery planet at the right distance from a suitably placid star is necessary for life to get going is an open question.

The book's most appealing feature is that Schilling does not leave the story here. He points out that the universe is young, and his final chapter is devoted to the end, when cosmic expansion means the universe is in effect a vacuum and even subatomic particles evaporate.

But don't be afraid. This universe, as he points out, is far from the first; and before it vanishes it will have replicated itself many times. If you want a quick and beautiful look at human knowledge on the grandest scale, this book is the place to go.

Martin Ince is contributing editor, The Times Higher .

Evolving Cosmos

Author - Govert Schilling
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 135
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 521 83325 6

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