Dennis Danielson, editor
The Book of the Cosmos: Imagining the Universe from Heraclitus to Hawking

"Historians--including historians of science--sometimes perform their best work not in telling us what we don't know but in causing us to reexamine what we think we do know. In fact, part of the task of this anthology is to let cosmologists such as Copernicus emerge from the fog of history's clichés and be heard afresh." (p. 118)
The Book of the Cosmos helped to make a week of camping under the stars immensely enjoyable and contemplative. Danielson has taken 85 more or less famous people and excerpted portions of their works on cosmology down to just a few pages each, adding his own comments and insights throughout. The background information and context that he provides is invaluable and adds a great deal to the anthology. The quotes from the famous scientists and thinkers alone wouldn't have made this book all that worthwhile. His commentary really adds the punch, texture, and content needed to make the work a digestible whole.

I hadn't found anything to particularly dislike about the book (noting here of course that some of the quotes were far more interesting than others) until I got to excerpt number 80, 488 pages into the book, and one of the longest in the book at 10 pages in length. Starting from that point on, until the end of the book, Danielson seems to give preferential treatment to theists. He seems to want to leave a religious taste in the reader's mouth even though the book could have went along just fine without any preaching. Either he is taking Hawking's advice and hoping that the God talk will add to his book's sale's figures or he is hoping for some conversions.

Why omit Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, and others but include David Berlinski (a mathematician and participant in The Wedge who is skeptical of virtually everything but his religion)? If the point is to include anyone's opinion or poor reasoning why not also include Joseph Smith's view that Kolob is the planet nearest to where God lives, or Marshall Applewhite's view that if he and his followers commit suicide they will be picked up by a spaceship traveling behind the Hale-Bopp comet, or the views of other science critics like Phillip Johnson or Richard Milton? These people are all as qualified to speak on physics and cosmology as Berlinski. Berlinski writes to non-biologists and non-physicists (rather than have his views published in peer reviewed publications) for a reason. They are not as likely to see through his misinformation and subterfuge. If Danielson is going to excerpt much of Berlinski's Commentary article he should have also done readers the favor of giving them some of the responses to it.

According to Danielson's bio, the anthropic principle is his specialty. He beats the subject a little too much for my tastes. Ironically, anthropic reasoning just brings us back to the anthropocentrism that Danielson tries to get away from. Danielson doesn't bother with any of the serious critiques of the Anthropic Principle.

Hopefully the above criticisms don't put off any potential readers. This really is a good book. It points out some excellent books that I have already read like Before the Beginning and Worlds Without End and it inspired me to obtain a copy of The Life of the Cosmos. The Maria Mitchell section, for instance, is so well done. If I knew all of her journals were as well written and interesting as the selections chosen by Danielson I'd rush out to get the whole thing.

From hundreds of years BC to the present, including Epicurus, Plato, and Aristotle in ancient times, Kepler, Brahe, and Galileo at the end of the Middle Ages, Herschel and Lowell in astronomy's pre-modern heyday, and modern workers and wonderers in the field like Einstein, Hubble, Clarke, Weinberg, Hawking, Ferguson, Guth, and others, The Book of the Cosmos is a real treasure. I highly recommended it to anyone and everyone. Particular interest in cosmology is not a pre-requisite. Reading this work will create such interest all by itself.

"In this great celestial creation, the catastrophe of a world such as ours, or even the total dissolution of a system of worlds, may possibly be no more to the great Author of nature than the most common accident in life with us, and in all probability such final and general doom-days may be as frequent there as even birth-days or mortality with us upon the earth.

This idea has something so cheerful in it that I can never look upon the stars without wondering why the whole world does not become astronomers;" (Thomas Wright of Durham as quoted on p. 264)

from the publisher:
A sweeping history of humanity's evolving vision of the universe, as viewed through the writings of the most exceptional thinkers in history.

In this monumental book, Professor Dennis Danielson has assembled a remarkable anthology that surveys the richness and excitement of the human quest to understand the universe--its origin, its structure, and its significance. From the ancient world to the latest theories of cosmic physics, The Book of the Cosmos presents the art as well as the science of human attempts to describe the universe, not only in colorful scientific prose but also in engaging excerpts from poetry and philosophy, diaries and dialogues, essays and epistles, from writers as diverse as Aristotle, Copernicus, Cicero, Albert Einstein, and Edgar Allan Poe. Here, as never before in a single volume, we taste firsthand the exhilaration, flair, and occasional bewilderment of a hundred authors from across written history who shaped, and continue to shape, our view of the cosmos.

Dennis Danielson is Professor of English at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, where he teaches honors and graduate courses in the literature of cosmology. He has lectured on topics such as Copernicanism, concepts of space, and the Anthropic Cosmological Principle to non-scientific audiences in the U.S., Canada, England, Germany, and South Africa.