Jason Mills's Reviews > On Being: A Scientist's Exploration of the Great Questions of Existence

On Being by Peter   Atkins
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Feb 27, 11

bookshelves: nectar-of-the-gods, non-fiction, science
Recommended to Jason by: Amazon!
Recommended for: Science buffs and anyone else.
Read from February 26 to 27, 2011 — I own a copy, read count: 1

On Being is a wonderful little book. Atkins goes through a handful of Big Questions: the origins of the universe and of life, the nature of reproduction, the end of life and the fate of the solar system and the cosmos. For each, he skims across the quaint stories offered by religions before expounding the realities unearthed by the diligence of science.

There's not a word wasted in 100 pages of crisp prose, nor anything that will tax the general reader. Occasional passages of more technical detail are in small print, and the reader is invited to skip them. Don't: they're fascinating, and his expositions of mitosis and the chromosomal square-dance of meiosis are absolute models of clarity.

Another delight is that Atkins has a dry, understated wit that is sharper than a serpent's tooth. On every page there is something worth quoting:

Those who promote the spirit might claim to know in their hearts that there is more to the world than the physical, but hearts are unreliable organs of knowledge.

Abstraction is taken to its limits in the Hindu Rigveda and Chandogya Upanishad, when being was achieved by the negation of non-being; but that is perhaps not a wholly satisfying explanation to every Western ear, coming as it does within an ant's fingerwidth of being a cop-out.


Although this splendid little volume slots neatly onto the shelf of recent atheist texts, it is less a polemic than an affirmation: Atkins does not so much attack the absurdities of religion as simply dismiss them, laying out instead the marvellous range and depth of scientific understanding. It's an elegant and glorious celebration.
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