Oxford £20 (408pp) £18 (free p&p) from The Independent Bookshop: 0870 079 8897; Hutchinson £20 (320pp) £18 (free p&p) from The Independent Bookshop: 0870 079 8897



Science: a 4000-year history, By Patricia Fara
You Are Here, By Christopher Potter

Books used to be about something. Then there was a phase of books about nothing. Now books are about everything. I can't help wondering, what is "about" about anyway? We are caught up in a pre-Copernican cosmology, in which something is presumed to be at the centre of the book and the book is at the centre of things, and we readers are mere satellites or moons orbiting around (or "about") it.

The trouble is that both Science: A 4000-year history and You Are Here: a portable history of the universe are, in their distinctive ways, post-Copernican works: de-centred, focused on the indeterminate horizon. They are variations on the theme of "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know". Pascal said that the universe is an infinite sphere, whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere. Both Patricia Fara and Christopher Potter are Pascalian in their scope and diversity of interests.

Inevitably, they run into the problem of infinity. As Lucretius first pointed out, you can always throw the spear that little bit further. Fara solves this problem elegantly by coming up with a 7x7 formal structure based on an ancient number system (reflected in "the seven days of creation"). On the one hand, she seems to be saying, we can encompass everything within this mathematical framework; on the other hand, it is self-evidently arbitrary, a flimsy fabrication of our over-heated brains. And in the very composition of her book she is mirroring something very important about science itself: that it is both a relentless pursuit of truth and, at the same time, the mere figment of a bunch of very limited earthlings.

Fara is hostile to any idea of "absolute truth" and hints at a link between an obsession with objectivity and the Holocaust. Although she rejects or at least puts in quotation marks any ideas about "revolutions" in science (as per Thomas Kuhn, for example), she conveys a strong sense of perpetual subversion amid the continuum. Scientists come across not as boring boffins but as rebels always looking to overturn the consensus or, at least, give it a new swerve.

There is no pure science, Fara argues. All science is radically impure, hybrid, tempted by metaphysics or mercantilism or the military. A lot of scientists turn out to be shrewd wheeler-dealers (Galileo), or closet alchemists (Newton, "the last of the magicians"). Not a few want to see or possibly be God (Hawking). But it is a mistake to rely on the "lone genius" label, largely a product of Enlightenment academies and shrewd PR. The word "scientist" is itself a 19th-century invention.

Fara demonstrates how much scientists belong to an international community, in a conversation that cuts across time and space, East and West. Some patriotic anecdotes, such as Alexander Fleming and the discovery of penicillin, are exposed as fairly mouldy and mythic. Crick and Watson, of double-helix fame, pilfered so much they come out as more like Crook and Watson. In her shrewd, globalised, interdisciplinary approach, there is a hint of Foucault-style structuralism, in which individuals are as insubstantial as a face drawn in the sand. She provides a wave-theory of history in which everything is really one, but bunching up into ghostly passing forms.

Potter is more of a quantum man at heart. Like quarks, his particles of information have the qualities of "charm" and "strangeness". When they collide they beam out massive shafts of illumination and occasionally open up vast black holes of doubt and anxiety about the meaning of the universe and everything that surrounds it. Miraculously, Potter manages to recompose them into a coherent model of the entirety of creation, a ship-in-a-bottle trick, but on the scale of the cosmos.

He effortlessly transcends any nonsense about CP Snow's "two cultures" (science vs humanities) as he weaves together physics, philosophy, palaeoanthropology and Proust into a grand synthesis. Although a mathematician by training, he eschews equations and is disarmingly honest about his (and our) limitations. Potter has a relaxed, man-in-an-armchair voice and an urbanity that put me in mind of Alastair Cooke, but talking about pulsars and genomes rather than American politicians. Potter is an ex-publisher too, and there is a faint suspicion of a palimpsest about his book, which seems to have gobbled up a lot of other books.

Jean Baudrillard said that there are really only two significant events, the Big Bang and the Apocalypse, while everything else in between is rather dreary. So we find ourselves yearning for book-ends of time and space, an absolute beginning and end. In the 19th century, positivism affirmed that the only proper concern of science was the bit in the middle. Ironically, ever since, science (large hadron colliders, for instance) has encroached on the territory staked out by theology and mysticism. Both Fara and Potter are anti-demarcationists. They would not sign up to Stephen Jay Gould's idea that religion and science are "non-overlapping magisteria". Karl Popper came up with that stern criterion of "unfalsifiability" to condemn Freud, Marx, Hegel et al as purveyors of false science and instigators of totalitarianism. AJ Ayer (quoting Hume) used to say that we ought to toss on the fire everything that was not immediately "verifiable".

I wonder what they would have made of string theory, which has dominated physics for the last quarter century, and has not come within a light-year of any experimental results. If quantum theory is right that the universe arose out of a fluctuation in the vacuum, then the answer to the question posed by Heidegger (and Leibniz), "why is there something rather than nothing?", is simply this: that something is nothing - and if you calculate the entire contents of the cosmos, it all adds up to zero. Fara and Potter show that science has a kind of poetry to it, and is not afraid of visionary absurdism.

Reviewers generally try to sound a little bit superior to the books they are reviewing and make minute corrections. Can I forego that pleasure? There is something in the vastness of these sweeping, learned works that makes a reader feel humble, like looking up at the night sky and admiring the constellations, wheeling across the firmament and lighting up the darkness.

Andy Martin's 'Beware Invisible Cows' is published in June by Simon & Schuster

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor