Skip to main content

On Being – Peter Atkins ***

This isn’t so much a book as a musing. It is easy to imagine the author, seated comfortably in a leather armchair in the Senior Combination Room (or whatever they call it at his institution), sipping vintage port and holding forth on his topic, which the subtitle refers to as ‘the great questions of existence.’ Whether or not this slim volume works for you depends on how you react to that concept. I’m not saying it’s high falutin’ – the book is written in an approachable, chatty style – but the reader has to be in the mood for some contemplation, rather than an exploration of the history of science or an explanation of scientific fact.
Peter Atkins covers the beginnings and end of the universe itself – and also of a human being in birth and death. It’s a vast scope and the book works better in some sections that others. (It’s strange, incidentally, that a book that is ‘On Being’ concentrates on the beginning and the ending but not on the being bit in the middle.) I found the universe-focused chapters more interesting than the human-centred ones. In fact the chapter on human death, essentially describing what will happen to Atkins’ own body after death, seemed out of place. This was really just a description of a biochemical process happening to a piece of meat. It didn’t seem to have lot to do with ‘being.’
I found this book very interesting but I did have a problem with the approach. There is a fundamental assumption in the preface that sets up the book’s premise: Atkins tells us that he believes that the the scientific method can be applied to everything. I find the idea of basing an argument on a belief that there is nothing supernatural no better than basing an argument on the belief that the supernatural exists. It seems a little flimsy (which is, perhaps, why it is tucked away in the preface).
What comes across, oddly, is an approach that feels unscientific. Surely to be truly scientific (at least, when taking a wide, philosophical view like this book) we should start with the possibility of a creator god as one option. Saying, as Atkins does, that ‘even if in due course science has to throw in the towel and, heaven forbid, concede that the universe was created by God’ exhibits the sort of prejudice that science rightly condemns in religious believers. He hasn’t come at this with an open mind. It’s telling that in the final chapter Atkins spends a fair amount of time attacking millennialism and the concept of the rapture, which is hardly mainstream. This is a bit like picking on some silly goings on at the University of East Anglia to attack climate science as a whole. It seems to suggest a lack of a cogent argument.
This is not by any means a bad book – its great strength is that it really does encourage the reader to think about some deep issues. But the danger of straying into the old folly of attempting to prove or disprove the existence of a deity through scientific argument is too close to the surface for me.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

De/Cipher - Mark Frary ****

I was a little doubtful when I first saw this book. Although it has the intriguing tagline 'The greatest codes ever invented and how to crack them' the combination of a small format hardback and gratuitous illustrations made me suspect it would be a lightweight, minimal content, Janet and John approach to codes and ciphers. Thankfully, in reality Mark Frary manages to pack a remarkable amount of content into De/Cipher's slim form.

Not only do we get some history on and instructions to use a whole range of ciphers, there are engaging little articles on historical codebreakers and useful guidance on techniques to break the simpler ciphers. The broadly historical structure takes the reader through basic alphabetic manipulation, keys, electronic cryptography, one time pads and so on, all the way up to modern public key encryption and a short section on quantum cryptography. 

We even get articles on some of the best known unsolved ciphers, such as the Dorabella and the Voynich ma…

Paul McAuley - Four Way Interview

Paul McAuley won the Philip K. Dick Award for his first novel and has gone on to win the Arthur C. Clarke, British Fantasy, Sidewise and John W. Campbell Awards. He gave up his position as a research biologist to write full-time. He lives in London. His latest novel is Austral.


Why science fiction?

For one thing, I fell in love with science fiction at an early age, and haven’t yet fallen out of love with it (although I have flirted with other genres). For another, we’re living in an increasingly science-fictional present. Every day brings headlines that could have been ripped from a science-fiction story. Giant robot battle: Who knew a duel between chainsaw-armed mech suits could be so boring? for instance. Or, Roy Orbison hologram to embark on UK tour in 2018. And looming above all this, like Hokusai’s famous wave, are the ongoing changes caused by global warming and climate change, which is just one consequence of human activity having become the dominant force of change on the planet…

Karl Drinkwater - Four Way Interview

Karl Drinkwater is originally from Manchester, but has lived in Wales half his life. He is a full-time author, edits fiction for other writers and was a professional librarian for over twenty-five years. He has degrees in English, Classics and Information Science. When he isn't writing, he loves exercise, guitars, computer and board games, the natural environment, animals, social justice, cake and zombies - not necessarily in that order. His latest novel is Lost Solace.

Why science fiction?

My favourite books have always been any form of speculative fiction. As a child I began with ghost stories, which were the first books to make me completely forget I was reading. By my teenage years I was obsessed with fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Although I read literary and contemporary books, non-fiction, historical works, classics and so on, it is speculative fiction that I return to when I want escape and wonder. When I read reviews of my last book, the fast-paced novella Harvest Fe…