Book Reviews

From Science to God: A Physicist's Journey into the Mystery of Consciousness by Peter Russell, New World Library, Novato, CA, 2003; 144 pages, ISBN 1577314093, hardback, $19.95.

Combining autobiography with a consideration of science and spiritual wisdom, From Science to God recounts the author's search to understand consciousness and to integrate it with a scientific worldview. Peter Russell's journey began as a knowledge-hungry child who was always asking "why": Why is the sky blue? Why do acids burn? How do we see color? As he grew up, this intense interest evolved into training for a career in math and science, studying physics under Stephen Hawking at Cambridge. When he began to investigate the sciences in depth, however, he realized that cold equations would not answer his deeper questions about the world. In pursuit of enlightenment he left college for India, where he studied transcendental meditation and philosophy, which remain central interests for him. Returning to Cambridge, he obtained an honors degree in theoretical physics and experimental psychology and a degree in computer science.

This book centers on consciousness and its existence throughout a sentient universe. The author explains in clear and simple terms what he understands consciousness to be, and every step of the journey is understandable because we follow the process used to arrive at his conclusions. He bases the concept of consciousness on experience, and theorizes that almost all objects have some experience or sensation of the world, and therefore are conscious. While a human being may have a richer experience than a rock or tree, every being has consciousness of some type. He argues that consciousness is the fundamental reality, rather than a byproduct of matter, space, and time.

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Western science denies this essential insight because it still ignores whatever cannot be quantified or established in terms of empirical data. The discussion goes on to explore the nature of light in both science and self-exploration, and the various paradigm shifts that have produced modern thought. "I saw that just as science had evolved through a series of paradigm shifts, so too had religion. Moreover, the two sets of shifts appeared to be heading in the same direction" (p. 108). He perceives an evolutionary process:

Western science broke away from the doctrines of monotheistic religion, establishing its own atheistic worldview, which today is very different indeed from that of traditional religion. But the two can, and I believe eventually will, be reunited. Their meeting point is consciousness. When science sees consciousness to be a fundamental quality of reality, and religion takes God to be the light of consciousness shining within us all, the two worldviews start to converge. — p. 116

Thus his investigations lead him to believe that all the discoveries are in place to forge a new pantheistic worldview that synthesizes science and spiritual wisdom, a view very similar to that described by the world's mystics. — Michael Dougherty


When Life Nearly Died: The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time by Michael J. Benton, Thames and Hudson, London, 2003; 336 pages, ISBN 050005116x, hardback, $29.95.

Comet and meteor impacts, "snowball" earth, sudden mass extinctions — earth scientists today seriously discuss such scenarios, testifying to the return of catastrophism after a 150-year reign of uniformitarianism, the theory that all past geological events should be explained only by the processes we see acting around us now. Dr. Benton, Professor of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Head of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol, takes us from Victorian scientists who identified the first fossil reptiles and rock strata, through the fall of catastrophism in the 1830s, to its eventual return in the 1980s. Writing in a clear style laced with humor and anecdote, he lays out the evidence supporting the various changing theories about the extinction of prehistoric life, including present controversies. Putting a very human face on geology and paleontology through biographical sketches of scientists over the years, as well as descriptions of his own activities, he emphasizes the way scientists work, the data that is and is not available, and the collegial process of arriving at and rejecting theories. As James Lovelock remarks on the jacket, this "splendid book brings back to Earth Science a sense of adventure. . . . It is both a wonderfully good read and a valued reference."

Dr. Benton's special interest is the mass extinction at the end of the Permian period, currently dated at 251 million years ago, when an estimated 90% of all species on land and sea became extinct. He examines the more thoroughly studied extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago and the evidence that has led scientists to accept that the earth has been struck by large extraterrestrial objects several times, including an asteroid 65 million years ago. Whether this event caused the extinction of the dinosaurs or merely contributed to it is not yet settled, though widely accepted. The study of meteor craters and confirmations of the impact 65 million years ago, at first rejected by most geologists and paleontologists, reestablished the respectability of catastrophism.

Focusing on the Permian extinction, he reveals how recent much of the vital data is. In fact, only in 2000 did scientists select the particular example of rock strata, in southern China, that serves as the internationally recognized boundary point or division between the Permian and Triassic periods. Mapping this boundary and the strata above and below it worldwide is an ongoing collaborative process taking place in far-flung parts of the globe — particularly China, Russia, Italy, Iran, Pakistan, Kashmir, Greenland, North America, and South Africa. These rocks and their fossils give information about the order and types of events, climate changes, and a detailed record of the disappearance and appearance of life forms. Not until 1995 could scientific methods date the rocks accurately enough to reveal the time span involved, and therefore the extinction's relative suddenness. The weakness of paleontology, the author points out, "is short time-scales, where the error bars on age estimates may exceed the time intervals in question. So, no one can say whether the end-Permian crisis lasted for one day or a few thousand years" (pp. 302-3).

The diverse Permian land and marine ecosystems are described, along with the bleak state of life worldwide at the beginning of the Triassic; and "the astonishing finding from all the current work is that perhaps the end-Permian crisis was actually more severe for life on land than for life in the sea. This is a striking turn-around from the view of only 15 years ago, that essentially nothing out of the ordinary had happened on land at all" (p. 219). How could this dramatic event have been overlooked?

Looking back to the state of understanding of the end-Permian crisis in 1970, or 1980, or even 1990, we can easily point to errors of judgment. Why were palaeontologists and geologists then so blind to the truth? (Can we be sure we have the truth now?) They were looking at the biggest crisis in the history of life and of the Earth and they didn't see it. They must have been deluded, or incompetent, or both. Not so. It is hard for scientists, just as for anyone else, to throw off everything they have been taught. And when the evidence is somewhat intangible, it is understandable if scientists err on the side of caution. — p. 252

Current theories accounting for the end-Permian extinction include a meteor impact, massive volcanic activity in Siberia, and the sudden release due to global warming of gas hydrates (newly discovered crystalline solids that collectively trap massive amounts of pressurized carbon-rich gases, such as methane). Laying out the evidence of all factions, he explains why he believes the predominant factor was volcanic activity, while emphasizing that all the evidence is far from in.

The book concludes by considering the lessons such extinctions may hold for us during what is sometimes characterized as the "sixth mass extinction," due to human intervention. Undogmatic in approach throughout, the author ends by saying that:

When I was beginning my career, I felt that scientific research was a line of work that led to ever greater complexity. As one accumulated information about how the Earth works, all the simple questions would be answered. Then the questions would have to become more intricate and harder to solve.
But the unanswered questions are as big and as simple as you could wish for . . . How diverse is life? How does the world react to human intervention? What will happen in the next 100 years? Where did life come from? How resilient is life to crisis? — pp. 304-5

— Sarah Belle Dougherty


The Seven Day Circle: The History and Meaning of the Week by Eviatar Zerubavel, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1989; 206 pages, ISBN 0226981657, paperback, $22.00.

Most of us organize our lives around the seven-day week, but unlike the day, month, or year, it is a fully manmade cycle. In this book the author explores its origins in the Jewish week, centered on the recurring Sabbath, and in the astrological week where each day is ruled by one of the seven planets, as still seen in the English names of the days. The astrological week most probably originated during the 2nd century BC, since

It was only in Alexandria [Egypt] that three distinct practices that had evolved quite independently of the Chaldean planetary theory — an astronomical practice of arranging the seven planets in a certain invariable order, a mathematical practice of subdividing the daily cycle into twenty-four hours, and an astrological theory known as the doctrine of "chronocratores" — were nevertheless integrated with it so as to produce the astrological seven-day week in its final form. This cycle is therefore the product of the successful Hellenistic fusion of astronomy, astrology, and mathematics, as well as of the great cultural heritage of Egypt, Babylonia, and Greece. — p. 14

Julius Caesar's conquest of Egypt in the 1st century BC introduced this planetary week to the Roman Empire, which still used the Etruscan eight-day week. Since the astrological and Jewish weeks were both seven days long, by the 1st century AD the day of Saturn had become identified with the Jewish Sabbath. After Christianity became the state religion, the Church integrated both cycles to produce our present week, used also by Jews and Moslems.

Dr. Zerubavel examines other "weekly" cycles, such as the African four-day week, Chinese three- and twelve-day weeks, the Baha'i nineteen-day week, and the ancient Central American twenty- and thirteen-day weeks, as well as a very complex Javanese calendar which contains several overlapping weekly cycles of different lengths. Particularly interesting are two European attempts to abolish the seven-day week: the ten-day week imposed in France after the Revolution (1793- 1805) and the Soviet five- and six-day weeks, imposed from 1929-1931 and 1931-1940 respectively. Other twentieth-century proposals to regularize the calendar by inserting "blank" days with no day-name assigned to them failed to be implemented, despite powerful support from business and political interests. The reason: Sundays would not always have been exactly seven days apart, thus interfering with the religious obligation of some groups "to observe the Sabbath precisely every seven days with no exception whatsoever" (p. 81).

The author also explores the sociological and psychological dimensions of the seven-day week in various contexts, showing it to be a necessary, powerful, but arbitrary human construction. An extensive bibliography provides avenues for exploring issues of interest. — Sarah Belle Dougherty

(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 2003; copyright © 2003 Theosophical University Press)


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Nature doth thus kindly heal every wound. By the mediation of a thousand little mosses and fungi, the most unsightly objects become radiant of beauty. There seem to be two sides of this world, presented us at different times, as we see things in growth or dissolution, in life or death. For seen with the eye of the poet, as God sees them, all things are alive and beautiful; but seen with the historical eye, or eye of the memory, they are dead and offensive. If we see Nature as pausing, immediately all mortifies and decays; but seen as progressing, she is beautiful. — Henry David Thoreau