Shubin leads readers to wonders of science


By Neil Shubin

Pantheon, $25.95

“The sun is not a constant beacon of light,” writes evolutionary biologist Neil Shubin. “It started its stellar life as a relatively dim star over 4.6 billion years ago and has increased in brightness ever since.” (It’s about 30 percent brighter and warmer now.) From the cooling of the universe and the nature of gravity to the introduction of water and living things, The Universe Within takes us on a journey through the last 13.7 billion years. You know, nothing more major than the history of hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen, Earth’s original relation to the Moon (“the big whack,” Shubin calls it), and the evolution of all that exists.

The author’s particular talent lies in translating complex sciences for a popular audience. His earlier book, Your Inner Fish, attracted a wide readership. The Universe Within exists at the crossroads of paleontology and astrophysics, where it becomes possible to relate the amount of oxygen inside a planet’s rocks to its distance from the sun. Shubin explains what humans have in common with whales, and how this relates to the stars. He also explores, in broad evolutionary terms, why we, as hopelessly sensitive individuals, occasionally lose track of time, and why our moods tend to shift with the seasons.

Lately, earthlings (not merely those in Hollywood) have begun to pay more attention to asteroids and other space debris. Shubin takes us through the series of catastrophes that have rocked our planet.

In addition to the impact that took out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, there were earlier extinctions: 250 million years ago more than 90 percent of undersea life was permanently obliterated. The biggest factor in the survival of a species, we learn, is its global distribution.

Our globe is “a snapshot in time,” that is, there have been multiples globes throughout the past. Everything is changing, but you just can’t see it: As the oceans moved and continents crashed together, mountains formed. Did you know that the Tibetan Plateau contains “over 82 percent of the rock surface area of the planet”? Its formation contributed to the earth’s cooling. Warm currents from the equator give Great Britain a milder climate than other places at the same latitude face.

Meanwhile, North America and Europe are drifting farther apart: “The plates on our planet move about as fast as hair grows on our scalps.”

The amount of available oxygen and the distribution of carbon in the atmosphere (think volcanic eruptions) have always determined the course of evolution. So, too, has the range of color that we — and birds and fish — see been affected by the forces that caused the North and South Poles to freeze.

“Our bodies and genes are layer after layer of biological inventions integrated with one another over billions of years.” These are just some of the perplexing cosmic questions that The Universe Within addresses.

You want to talk about climate change? Sometime in the next billion years, our sun will exhaust its supply of hydrogen, and the Earth will “almost certainly” lose its water. In other words, we’ll be living on Venus. Or not.

Andrew Burstein is Charles P. Manship Professor of History at LSU, and co-author of Madison and Jefferson (now a Random House paperback). His web site is: