Book Review: ‘The Universe Within’ by Neil Shubin

The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and PeopleThe Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People by Neil Shubin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like most books that focus more on breadth rather than depth, if you know any particular field in here in detail you’ll find this a rather superficial read. In particular, I studied biology and skipped all the extremely high-level overviews of basic evolutionary biology and chemistry. At the same time, though, I’m not much familiar with paleontology or extensively familiar with geology (amusingly, Shubin cites one of the other books I’m currently reading—The Two-Mile Time Machine: Ice Cores, Abrupt Climate Change, and Our Future—as a more detailed look at the mechanisms behind seasonal change and so on; I’m sure Alley was the source for the information about Milankovitch) and since that’s what Shubin’s focus is, it worked out okay. Also, Shubin brings a lot more personality to the table. He’s a fun writer.

To be honest, my main lesson from this book was that Alfred Wegener is kind of a BAMF. This picture showed up in the book. Click for where I got it from—it's not a scan. Original caption: Wegener during the 1930 expedition to Greenland, Alfred Wegener Institute. Used without permission.

To be honest, my main lesson from this book was that Alfred Wegener is kind of a BAMF. This picture showed up in the book. Click for where I got it from—it’s not a scan. Original caption: Wegener during the 1930 expedition to Greenland, Alfred Wegener Institute. Used without permission.

He intersperses his personal narrative of a research trip with the lessons from that trip (pay close attention to what time it is if you’re way up north, for one) as well as an overview of what was happening geologically, who was involved in the discoveries—he is very, very good about including people who may have been overlooked by the more formal bodies of recognition—and then relating it back to internal processes. While I did know more of the internal processes than he includes, his approach to the human body is quite different from that of a biology class. Overall, the thesis of interconnectedness is cool. Also, it made me nostalgic for that ‘Powers of Ten’ video they show in every high school science class (it never got old, either).

The book is structured chronologically, which keeps otherwise disparate ideas coherently focused. Everything is through the lens of a more geological approach, too, and that helps. Shubin has a good sense of humor that keeps the book a light read. And, again, it isn’t that detailed anyway. I highly recommend looking at the footnotes if you’re interested in gaining more than a brief, comprehensive view of the subject matter.

(On a completely personal note, this book made me regret never taking one of the geology courses at the University of Chicago; I fell for the “rocks for jocks” stereotype even though the course descriptions were pretty cool. I had no idea that brown building with the confusing squiggly statue-thing in front of it was full of so many interesting discoveries. At the least I could’ve gone to his talk at the Seminary Co-op—a bookstore—I did the poster for that. Oh well, I also dropped Paul Sereno’s class. I had zero free time.)

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