Friday, December 4, 2009



WE should get one thing straight at the beginning - although this book is written by a respected member of the scientific community, it is not a book about science. It is about those aspects of philosophy and theology that border on the scientific enterprise, which is quite a different thing. The book's title derives from Edward Harrison's central thesis - that there is a distinction between the Universe and various universes.

The Universe is the real thing - everything that exists. It is also, according to Mr. Harrison, forever unknown and unknowable. A universe, on the other hand, is the conception people have of the makeup of the Universe at any given time -what most scientists would call a model of the Universe. It is this distinction between the Universe and our ideas about it that occupies the first section of the book. Mr. Harrison, who is a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Massachusetts, sees human history as a long succession of universes, each representing a different mask behind which the true Universe hides.

The most primitive mask is the magical universe. This is a universe pervaded by spirits, a world in which everything is alive. As human society advanced, this mask was replaced by the mythic universe, in which a single god or a hierarchy of gods created and rule the world. The Greeks developed what Mr. Harrison calls the geometric universe, with the earth surrounded by crystal spheres carrying the planets and stars on their courses. St. Augustine tried to replace this mask with a more religious one - a universe with a Christian God watching over and imparting meaning to everything. Finally, this religious mask was replaced by the clockwork universe of Isaac Newton and the Enlightenment scientists, a universe that may or may not have been initiated by a god but is now ticking along according to natural laws that can be discovered by the human mind. The modern mask of the universe, the one to which Mr. Harrison devotes the greatest amount of time, is one characterized by unseen atoms, unseeable quarks and distorted space-time.

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Shreyas Malik

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