Friday, July 10, 2015

Review:: You are Here: A Portable History of the Universe, by Christopher Potter

Title: You are Here: A Portable History of the Universe
Author: Christopher Potter
Format: Hardcover
Rating: ★☆☆☆☆

That moment when you're reading a non-fiction science book and you realize the author isn't a scientist. Lemme put it this way: the first moment you make a glaring error in a non-fiction book, I'm going to start giving it more scrutiny. The second? I'm upset.

I was ranting and raving on both Goodreads and in meatspace as I read this book. Where should I start...

So, the book was okay-ish at the start, although it felt a bit like a bunch of Wikipedia pages thrown together (which makes sense, as he did most of his research on Wikipedia according to the sources at the end). Then, I started noticing something odd.

There were no citations.

Now, it's really bad when a non-fiction book, especially a non-fiction science book has no citations. One of the things I loved about The Signal and the Noise was how almost every single fact, no matter how mundane it seemed, had a citation. No footnotes at all? You're screwing up majorly.

So, I was pretty unenthused... and then on page 52 he mentions how in the Hopi language, they have no linear construct of time. This is so untrue. This was something put forward by an amateur linguist a long, long time ago and has been so heavily debunked that I can't even. And for a guy who did most of his research on Wikipedia... well, why didn't he read the wiki page on the Hopi Time Controversy?

There's the one error.

But then we get quotes like this:
"But for whatever reasons (and many reasons have been put forward) the history of science is largely a story that came to be told in the Western world."
Now, one might argue that he means the narrative of the history of science (which would be untrue, considering how much of science was uncovered in the Middle East and it's well known that European pyrotechnics were gathered from China... but no. He actually talks about how one of the reasons put forward is because the Chinese language uses ideographs and so they might be more "idea-oriented" which makes them less likely to do science.




Many major scientific discoveries were made in the Middle East, China, and India either simultaneously with the Western world or before.

Some things aren't as bad, but still eye-roll worthy:
"The knowledge that the planetary orbits are ellipses and not circles still has the power to shock even today, so instinctively do we respond to the idea that the motion of the heavens must be circular as the ancients believed."
Please raise your hand if you're shocked by the orbits not being circular. Anyone? ...anyone?
 "For hundreds of years, the Greek language had been lost to the West."
I know he means Italy, basically, but all I can think when he phrases it this way is, "...even to the Greeks?"
"Complex multi-celled organisms like flies and human beings reproduce by a process we call sex."
Is it just me, or is "all" implied in there? Because I'm pretty sure many plants and even some animals would beg to differ.

Oh, and then he talks about dinosaurs and crocodiles evolving from lizards. We're done here. We're so done.

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