Tuesday, 16 October 2001

Bernard Lovell: In the Centre of Immensities (1979)

Edition: Hutchinson, 1979 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 961

Now sadly out of date, Bernard Lovell's wonderful popular science book was an inspiration to me in my teens. It tells a familiar story, the history of human understanding of the cosmos and our species' place in it, but stands out because of the excellence of Lovell's writing and a slightly unusual viewpoint.

Most popular science books seek to make the reader wonder at the marvels of the universe, particularly the paradox that the best descriptions currently available are not intuitively obvious. There is a subtext to this, though, which is that science is wonderful for having discovered so much out about the universe and for describing things in such a subtle way.

Lovell is interested in the wonders of the universe, but he is also concerned with the way in which changing perceptions of the universe have affected our species' view of itself. A considerable proportion of the book, including the whole last chapter, is about morality, something which it has become fashionable for scientists to ignore completely with the argument that scientific research is morally neutral. The problem with this is that the application of research is not neutral, and there is certainly some scientific work which is so tightly tied to a particular application that it can itself hardly be termed neutral (biological weapons work, for example).

The foregoing perhaps overstates the importance of this aspect of In the Centre of Immensities. It is this, though, which makes it different from most histories of cosmological speculation, and it is this which made it such an important book to me.

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