In The Universe Within, Neil Shubin plumbs universal history.
In his 2009 book Your Inner Fish, paleontologist and University of Chicago professor Neil Shubin examined the awe-inspiring links between human anatomy and fish. (See your hands? They’re modified fish fins.) With The Universe Within (Pantheon Books, $25.95), he illuminates, with a Carl Sagan–like clarity and elegance, the specifics behind the Joni Mitchell lyric “We are stardust.” Revisiting groundbreaking discoveries—many of them by lesser-known scientists—he explores how in our cells, interior clocks and even the way we chew, the history of the cosmos is embedded in us all.
You write very engagingly and clearly about things like the origins of the universe. Did you have to be mindful of keeping the writing from getting too complex?
Definitely. That’s always the challenge. Being a scientist means you love the details. That’s what we work on here in my lab at the University of Chicago every day. When you write a book for the general public, it’s really tough because you have to make decisions about what to include and, more importantly, what to exclude. This book could’ve been a thousand pages, easily.
In your work, you’ve focused on synthesizing different branches of science, and that seems like what you’re doing here.
Exactly. The whole book is about the interconnectedness of the universe but also the interconnectedness of science—astronomy, geology, biology…. If we really want to answer some of the fundamental questions of our existence, it’s not just one “-ology” that’s going to get us there. It’s going to be a multidisciplinary, synthetic approach.
A lot of popular science books focus on the same scientists, same findings, but you introduce some less familiar scholars and show how the things they discovered, even if they were mistakes, were contributions.
We often forget that science is a such a human enterprise. People are taking chances and succeeding but more often they’re failing, and we’re learning from those failures. That’s the story I wanted to tell. I also wanted to focus on sort of unsung heroes. Many of them turned out [to be] women. My wife pointed that out to me after I wrote it.
You talk about the kind of focused attention you need to notice both fossil bones and patterns in the sky. Did it take you a while to learn to see this way?
It sure did, and a lot of trial and error. It basically meant spending a lot of time not finding stuff. You’re walking with other people and looking for fossils, and they’re seeing everything. They’re picking it up in your own footprints!
One thing I was surprised by is the crazy funding needed for these fossil-hunting trips. It’s expensive!
Well, the Arctic is, yeah.
That helicopter ride in Greenland that cost $1,000 an hour…
Yeah, that was ridiculous. It certainly places constraints and increases the tension level. If you come home as a failure after having blown a lot of money, it definitely gives you a sense of humility.
Do you want to write more books of this nature?
Yes, but for books, you need a passion—an idea that’s burning inside of you. If I do another one, I’ll need an idea that takes over me to some extent.
But you’ve already covered the entire universe.
[Laughs] I’ll figure something out.
Shubin reads at the Seminary Co-Op Thursday 10.