the guardian Fri 17 April 2009
Popular cosmology as therapy seems to be becoming a small tradition. Potter, a former publisher, claims at the outset: "We do not like to think about the universe because we fear the immensity that is everything." Bravely, he will think about it anyway, in an attempt to cure our "nauseous existential fears". What follows is crammed with expositions of galactic and microscopic scales, the big bang theory and inflation, Einsteinian spacetime, quantum mechanics and so on, decorated with allusions to poets and ancient philosophers. Curiously, given the literary bent, what the book lacks is the narrative power and lucidity of the big pop expositions by actual scientists (Gribbin, Krauss, Kaku et al); and too often it devolves into mere inventory (lists of big animals or nearby stars).
What puts most of a downer on it is that Potter has an animus against "science" itself - or at least what he morosely perceives as its "power, nihilism and smug material certainty", and its apparent intention "to vanquish Nature". Depressingly, he smears science with a religious vocabulary, so that there is talk of scientists' "faith" (despite the fact that they do change their theories in the light of evidence). This might all be explained by a trivial confusion of science with scientism, but it leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Potter complains: "But how can science be divorced from philosophy and theology?" Well, philosophy is one thing, but science divorced from "theology" appears to be getting along quite nicely so far.