Peter Atkins is the shining exception to the rule that scientists make poor writers. A Fellow at Oxford and a leading chemist, he has won admiration for his precise, lucid, and yet rigorous explanations of science. Now he turns his forensic mind to the greatest — and most controversial — questions of human existence: birth, death, the origin of reality, and its end.
In On Being, Atkins makes a provocative contribution to the great debate between religion and science. Atkins makes his position clear from the very first sentence: “The scientific method can shed light on every and any concept, even those that have troubled humans since the earliest stirrings of consciousness,” he writes. He takes a materialist approach to the great questions of being that have inspired myth and religion, seeking to “dispel their mystery without diminishing their grandeur.” In placing scientific knowledge in such cosmic perspective, he takes us on an often dizzying tour of existence. For example, he argues that “the substrate of existence is nothing at all.” The total electrical charge of the universe, among other things, must be nothing — zero — he writes, or else the universe would have blasted itself apart. “Charge was not created at the creation: electrical Nothing separated into equal and opposite charges.” He explores breathtaking questions — asking the purpose of the universe — with wit and learning, touching on Sanskrit scriptures and John Updike along the way.
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