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The Universe And Its Mysteries — To Go

Christopher Potter has written for the <em>Sunday Times, The Independent</em> and <em>The Standard.</em>
Christopher Potter has written for the Sunday Times, The Independent and The Standard.

It's been 20 years since the release of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, and still it collects dust on millions of bookshelves, unread and unloved. After 10 pages or so of Hawking's prose, many of us were more confused about time travel or the theory of relativity than before.

The fact is, while classical Newtonian physics could be seen and felt and understood intuitively, the new laws of space and time, which require us to embrace uncertainty and ambiguity, are confusing even to professionals. As Christopher Potter writes in You Are Here: A Portable History of the Universe, "If scientists themselves are entitled to feel excluded, how much more do we, poor puzzled onlookers, peer through a glass darkly?"

Potter is here to hold our hands and walk us through the universe, and he is an excellent tour guide. The head of the respected London publisher Fourth Estate, Potter has created a friendly and poetic introduction to the current understanding of the universe. He begins by mapping out the heavens, light-year by light-year, and then turns his gaze to the minuscule and the quantum (admitting, even, that some scientists think quantum physics makes no sense). He covers evolution and explains the birth process of a star, all the while sparing us from feeling like idiots if we get lost in the theory.

I did not leave You Are Here suddenly understanding Schroedinger and Heisenberg, but for about five whole minutes, I'm pretty sure I understood the basics of relativity. (Then I thought about something else and lost it.)

"Nature resists our attempts to uncover her secrets," the author writes. That she does — but at least we have writers as patient and clever as Christopher Potter to translate those secrets we have uncovered.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jessa Crispin