Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Thrilling science writing digs up dirt on dirt, rocks

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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

History

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

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