Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Thrilling science writing digs up dirt on dirt, rocks

  • Print

FOLLOWING up on his 2008 bestseller, Your Inner Fish, Chicago biologist Neil Shubin is out to prove that dirt and rocks can be fodder for the same thrilling science writing as neurons and particle colliders.

With stronger prose and a more cohesive narrative sensibility than his earlier effort, he doesn't make a bad case.

The central conceit of the book is that every aspect of our bodies carries some tell-tale sign of our past, back to the origin of life itself.

The idea is to explore the history of the planet through its evolutionary effects on us, an overarching theme that works more often than not. Shubin interweaves each chapter with sections on geology or planetary physics, along with shorter or longer sections on animal biology.

For example, the rotation of our planet, which goes back to the origin of the solar system, has been a constant through life's history. The day and night cycle is ultimately the source of our powerful internal clocks, which control hormone levels, organ functioning and even the activity of individual cells.

Written right into our DNA, this deep-rooted body schedule tells all animals when we should be asleep or awake, which we ignore at the risk of stress, stroke, even cancer.

The Earth sciences are such a mixed-bag of related disciplines, fossil-hunters like Shubin need to have a working knowledge of taxonomy, geology, atmospheric chemistry -- the list goes on.

In telling what is ultimately the history of the planet, this book also gives a primer in a dozen major scientific discoveries of the past century, from continental drift to carbon dating to killer asteroids.

In the tradition of his paleontological predecessor, the late Stephen Jay Gould, and with nods to Carl Sagan's Cosmos and Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, Shubin appreciates the history and process of scientific discovery as much as the discoveries themselves.

What set of circumstances and which unique personalities came up with some of these off-the-wall ideas that ultimately turned out to be right? Why did they see what others could not?

At first glance, the science in this book is not the sexiest nor is most of it on the cutting edge. Today's bookstore science shelf is heavily slanted towards cutting-edge physics, neuroscience and biotech.

Meanwhile, most readers will recall the basics of plate tectonics from their elementary school days. That vague feeling of familiarity, however, quickly disappears, as Shubin describes deeper details of the processes in question, and shares personal and historical anecdotes little known outside his field.

The last ice age is common knowledge, but the astronomical cycles that lead to recurring warm and cold eras over time is not. That the world's land masses once fit together as a single supercontinent is not a secret, but the centuries-long story that allowed scientists to discover this fact is less well-known.

The physics of size and the science of internal timekeeping are fascinating but little-visited, while the catastrophic destruction of the dinosaurs is rarely discussed in detail in books for adult readers.

As a result, Shubin's book has a freshness usually reserved for more obscure non-fiction topics, like that of Mark Kurlansky's surprise hit, Salt. And like that book, The Universe Within seems to have no greater goal than making the reader say, "Huh, that's interesting."

There's nothing wrong with Brian Greene's mind-bending treatises on string theory, or Michio Kaku's up-to-the-minute speculations on the world of tomorrow. But Shubin's latest offers something just a little bit different. It's a good pick for science buffs who think they know everything.

Joel Boyce is a Winnipeg writer and teacher.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 2, 2013 J7


Updated on Saturday, February 2, 2013 at 3:49 PM CST: adds fact box

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Jets vs. Ducks Series promo

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Jia Ping Lu practices tai chi in Assiniboine Park at the duck pond Thursday morning under the eye of a Canada goose  - See Bryksa 30 Day goose challenge Day 13- May 17, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • Horses enjoy a beautiful September morning east of Neepawa, Manitoba  - Standup Photo– Sept 04, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos


Do you agree with the sale of the Canadian Wheat Board to foreign companies?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google