Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself” as Want to Read:
The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself

4.19  ·  Rating details ·  7,034 ratings  ·  786 reviews
Already internationally acclaimed for his elegant, lucid writing on the most challenging notions in modern physics, Sean Carroll is emerging as one of the greatest humanist thinkers of his generation as he brings his extraordinary intellect to bear not only on Higgs bosons and extra dimensions but now also on our deepest personal questions.  Where are we? Who are we? Are o ...more
Hardcover, 480 pages
Published May 10th 2016 by Dutton
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about The Big Picture, please sign up.
Popular Answered Questions
Marek Winiarz I will take a middle position. If you know nothing of physics, the author does not "explain everything along the way". Concepts of entropy and minimum…moreI will take a middle position. If you know nothing of physics, the author does not "explain everything along the way". Concepts of entropy and minimum energy are key, yet their knowledge is assumed. To be fair, if you are reading this text, you are on a pretty high knowledge level to start with. But even physicists cannot describe what the Core Theory is. Quantum relativity is probabilistic and makes sense only mathematically, so understanding details is not that important. Since the reader cannot understand all the deep physics (I sure don't), it's the big outline that matters, and I think that you can follow that. But believing without understanding is called faith, so some faith is in play. However this is not dogma and the reader is not obligated to "believe". Whether life happened to hydrogenate carbon dioxide is entertaining to think about but it's not in any way empirically provable. So the purpose in reading is not blind faith but stimulation of thought and the author's contribution of ideas to the eternal questions.(less)
Marek Winiarz The author's point is that the universe is made up of both. Atoms create the physical "plant"; stories create useful descriptions of our experience. T…moreThe author's point is that the universe is made up of both. Atoms create the physical "plant"; stories create useful descriptions of our experience. This book is about exactly those concepts. Happy reading!(less)

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 4.19  · 
Rating details
 ·  7,034 ratings  ·  786 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself
Apr 22, 2016 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: People looking for an intelligent summary of naturalism
[A cloud in Heaven. PLATO, LUCRETIUS, HUME, LAPLACE, DARWIN, THE REV BAYES and sundry others]

PLATO: Meeting to order. Manny has asked us to review Sean Carroll's new book. I trust you've all read it?

LUCRETIUS: Say, how come we're writing this for him? What's going on, Plato?

PLATO: I owe Manny a little favor. Fellow-seekers after wisdom, we have eternity ahead of us. This won't take more than an aeon or two. Who's first?

LUCRETIUS: Okay, I didn't like it much.

PLATO: Would you care to elaborate, de
David Rubenstein
This is a wonderful book about the meaning of our universe, and of life. Sean Carroll is an active theoretical physicist, and he brings some fresh new ideas to philosophy. He coins a new term, Poetic Naturalism. It stems from a quote by Muriel Rukeyser,
The universe is made of stories, not atoms.
While naturalism is the idea that only natural laws and forces (not supernatural or spiritual) operate in the world, poetic naturalism says that the way we find meaning to life does not naturally emerge
Dannii Elle
I received this on a read to review basis from NetGalley. Thank you to the author, Sean Carroll, and the publisher, Dutton, for the opportunity.

A brief overview of this fascinating non-fiction can be written no more aptly than in the synopsis itself - "In short chapters filled with intriguing historical anecdotes, personal asides, and rigorous exposition, readers learn the difference between how the world works at the quantum level, the cosmic level, and the human level--and then how each conne
Brian Clegg
Most popular science books either focus in on a specific bit of science, or explore the work of a particular scientist. However, every now and then, authors get the urge to go large - to take on life, the universe and everything. It’s what you might call the science writer’s midlife crisis - and this title typifies the genre.

Of itself, this isn’t a bad idea, though it can be a struggle to decide how to organise such a vast subject matter, and the ‘big book’ syndrome frequently rears its ugly hea
After having a countdown for this book, which spanned months, I woke up at 5 am on May 10th and thought, "It's finally here!" I opened my Audible library and it was better than Christmas. In the quiet of the morning, I began to listen to this deeply philosophical book and immediately fell in love with it. It felt like a Poetic Naturalist's version of Christmas- material gifts replaced by the gift of trying to understand the nature of our vast universe and the world in which we live.

Those who ha
Sep 26, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: physics
Physicist Sean Carroll goes well beyond the ordinary bounds of his discipline in this wide ranging exposition. He begins with ontology, the fundamental nature of everything, and ends with how humans can derive meaning living in a world that is not transcendent. Along the way we get explanations of quantum field theory, quantum mechanics, entropy, Bayes Theorem, abiogenesis, evolution and consciousness. Much of the material does not represent new thinking, but one discussion stood out to me.

In hi
Dave Ciskowski
Aug 08, 2016 rated it it was ok
Shelves: donated-lost
A disappointing book; despite its potential, I can’t recommend it. Carroll’s tenet — the idea he calls “poetic naturalism” — is appealing to me and would be worthy of a good exploration. Unfortunately, Carroll spends most of his time exploring the “naturalism” side of his philosophy, which amounts to knocking over cardboard opponents. The early phases of the book (where Carroll is on his most certain scientific ground) read as an interesting tour of the current state of cosmology and the Standar ...more
Manuel Antão
Aug 25, 2020 rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2020
If you're into stuff like this, you can read the full review.

Quarkenergy: "The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself" by Sean Carroll

What is the meaning of life?

These are the Rules:

1) Survive in good health;

2) Reproduce; but not to the extent of overpopulation and the detrimental effects thereof;

3) Learn about this World / Universe in whichever field(s) of study best suits you;

4) Work smart and efficiently, but a little hard work now and again is probably a good
Poetic Naturalism: Not a Good Way of Talking

The “Big Picture” is an attempt by a physicist to explain our universe, up to and including culture. It begins with naturalism, the concept that there is a single, objective reality that follows a set of laws. We can discover those laws by observing that reality using scientific method. The author extends that (or dilutes it) to something he calls “Poetic Naturalism”. This means, in his words:

1) There are many ways of talking about the world.
2) All go
Andrej Karpathy
Dec 30, 2016 rated it liked it
I love Sean Carroll, but I can't bring myself to finish this book. This is not some kind of cool science book. It's a little too much too long too high-level philosophy, re-iterating the same things over and over again, and just overall meh. Someone else less familiar with physics might like it.

EDIT: I accidentally read this book again forgetting that I already had. I have to start by saying that I actually love Sean Carroll and adore his presentation/teaching ability. That said, I had to skip o
Book Riot Community
When I started reading The Big Picture I assumed it would be about cosmology. Sean Carroll is a cosmologist and physicist at the California Institute of Technology, and his previous books dealt with that subject. Carroll’s new book is about an even bigger topic – everything. What Carroll attempts to do is give the big picture of our existence, and he does a fine job. He combines science, philosophy, religion, psychology and other subjects, to show why no one explanation works. There can be no ge ...more
Feb 19, 2016 rated it really liked it
Can meaning and purpose be found and explained within a non-theistic (vs. an atheistic - related, but different) worldview? Sean Carroll argues that not only is it possible, but the only reasonable perspective. He creates a new paradigm, which he calls poetic naturalism to explain how he joins science, philosophy, and a naturalistic worldview with one that also allows for wonder, mystery, joy, purpose, and meaning in life.

Poetic naturalism contends that we have different ways of talking about r
Mar 07, 2020 rated it did not like it
Extremely annoying philosophizing that fails to deliver on any of the title's promises
Having listened to a series of theoretical physics books explaining quantum physics, relativity, the expanding universe, and the emergence of string theory, including Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe, Michio Kaku's Parallel Worlds, Lee Smolin's The Trouble With Physics, and Jim Baggott's Farewell to Reality, I picked up this audiobook based on positive reviews on Goodreads and Audible, but discovered it is i
Michael Huang
Sep 07, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Lucid exposition of an entire belief system/world view Carroll calls poetic naturalism.

Naturalism is the view there is a nature and it follows discoverable laws. Poetic refers to the fact you can have multiple compatible laws describing the same thing at different levels of detail. Which one is most useful is up to you. You have the poetic license to make such a choice.

I remember Karl Popper was said to be the favorite philosopher of scientists and engineers. Carroll offers himself up as a seri
I was following Sean Carroll's blog for a long time - he is a great professional and clearly has a gift of explaining complicated things in a simple way.
This book, however, was a bit too simplistic. Not the ideas themselves, something else - the attempt to cover everything? The lukewarm philosophy?

Still, highly admire the author, and can only recommend his blog
Carroll introduces a philosophical idea he calls "poetic naturalism" in which the ontology includes objects which are useful in talking about the world at a given scale or levels of detail. For example, we can talk about people when it's useful to do so, and not worry that people are just made up of atoms and without getting distracted by questions like which is the last atom that's part of "me" on the tip of my finger.

The book takes the reader from the beginning of science with Newton's laws of
Jose Moa
May 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: essay, science, cosmology
This is a ambitious well structured honest book that for me achieved two goals,make the conection between the substructure and superestructure of the whole cosmos,is to say give a explanation of the galaxies,stars,life,evolution,humans as a consecuence of the interaction of the fundamental quantum fields and asociated particles,and second makes a rigurous argumentation of the no necesity of the existence of supernatural or divine influences,in this sense is a book that rigurously arguments in fa ...more
David Msomba
From the Book

"EVERYBODY DIES. Life is not a SUBSTANCE, like water or rock; it’s a PROCESS, like fire or a wave crashing on the shore. It’s a process that begins, lasts for a while, and ultimately ends. Long or short, our moments are brief against the expanse of eternity."

I should print this above quote and hang it on the wall,such a powerful/mindgasm statement that will live with me for the rest of my life.

While I might be stuck with the beauty of that above statement,the book itself is DEEP,INS
Jul 14, 2016 rated it liked it
Quite interesting philosophical discussion of what we know, what we can know, and what we can't know. The author is a professor of physics and begins with a review of the history of what we have learned about the laws of physics
He then launches into a discussion of philosophical belief systems contrasting those of theism and atheism. He describes his belief in a system termed "poetic naturalism." The naturalism part is that there are no gods, no creators, no life after death, etc. In other word
Gerald Heath
Jun 23, 2017 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
What a waste! I picked up this big book because I love science! Having read 33% of it, an investment of several irreplacable hours of my life, I have found precious little science, and chapter after chapter...after chapter...of philosopical preaching about the foolishness of those who put any credence in the supernatural. I surrender!

Look, I have no problem with atheism! It is a perfectly reasonable way of looking at the world, particularly from a physicist. But whether you are pontificating abo
May 09, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I finally have a term to sum up my own personal philosophy toward life (which was certainly deepened and expanded by reading this book): poetic naturalism.
Aug 30, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: philosophy, science
I bought this at an airport bookstore, mostly because I admired the audacity of someone who would write a book about life, meaning, and the universe and slap it all on the cover.

I'm pretty much the audience for this book. I like science but have zero formal training in it; I like books that are overly ambitious in their scope. I also went into this book (without realizing it) already having essentially the same philosophical and religious views as the author. That made for a somewhat satisfying
Oct 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Sean Carroll speaks of a new idea called poetic naturalism. The poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” The world is what exists and what happens, but we gain enormous insight by talking about it—telling its story— indifferent ways.
Naturalism comes down to three things:
1. There is only one world, the natural world.
2. The world evolves according to unbroken patterns, the laws of nature.
3. The only reliable way of learning about the world is by observing i
Feb 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This is nonfiction science. It was very science-y which is not my thing, but I liked this one. If every physics teacher could be like this author, more kids would leave high school having enjoyed science, as a whole.

Some of this was completely over my head, but not once did the author ever make me feel like I was in the weeds. He took his time and described everything so well. This author posed a lot of "big
picture" questions, but instead of letting the reader ponder them, he stepped in and g
Gary  Beauregard Bottomley
Mar 18, 2016 rated it it was amazing
All popular science books should take a clue from this book. There is no 'one scientific method' there are just many different possible ways we determine our justified true beliefs.
This author is never afraid at talking above the listener. He's perfectly comfortable at using the appropriate terms that our needed, and he takes a stand on many of the issues within the Philosophy of Science. As the author says, science before Galileo thought in terms of causes and purpose (teleology), and afterward
Nov 24, 2020 rated it really liked it
Wow! This was a long but very fulfilling read and sometimes even witty and funny. Not all the chapters were that interesting but on the whole it had a profound influence on how I see the world and how I think about it. I kept on highlighting sentences which I wanted to remember! It’s easily readable though it requires a certain basic knowledge of physics. Otherwise it could maybe be too hard to understand. The author doesn’t go and explain everything: he assumes you know about basic physics theo ...more
P. Wilson
Feb 08, 2017 rated it liked it
This a good book if you're looking for a reasonably clear synopsis of modern physics. It also has an excellent section on scientific reasoning, including a useful description of Bayesian probability and abduction (as distinct from deduction and induction). It is marred, however, by the what I would call the author's evangelical atheism. His alternative, "poetic naturalism," is best described by one reviewer as "not even wrong." (Robert Crease)
Poetic naturalism, the author's coinage, are the stor
Amaan Cheval
Apr 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
The Big Picture is the best book I've read so far. It aims to address some extremely difficult questions, and surprisingly enough, it does do them justice and address them well. Sean Carroll pulls in research from several avenues to build as comprehensive a picture as possible, including logical and well-structured arguments for what he believes and why that makes sense.

The book is very thought-provoking and it feels like it does a great job at peeling apart several layers of the human experienc
Peter Tillman
Out from the library & didn't get far. Not for me!

The reviews I recommend reading here are by Dave Ciskowski,
and by Blair,
I won't even pretend to have wrestled with this book in the depth that they did. Thanks to both for fine reviews.

I spent more time trying to understand Sean Carroll's "Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime" and ultimately gave up on that one too. But it was defin
This one was a mixed bag for me. Author Sean Carroll is a theoretical physicist specializing in quantum mechanics, gravity, and cosmology. He is a research professor in the Walter Burke Institute for Theoretical Physics in the California Institute of Technology Department of Physics, according to his Wikipedia page.

Sean M. Carroll :

I went into this one with high hopes, after it was recommended to me. Sadly, it didn't meet my expectations...
I find that science books often break into two br
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 next »

Readers also enjoyed

  • What Is Real?: The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics
  • A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing
  • The Order of Time
  • Reality is Not What it Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity
  • Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence
  • Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe
  • Einstein's Unfinished Revolution: The Search for What Lies Beyond the Quantum
  • Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst
  • The Greatest Story Ever Told—So Far: Why Are We Here?
  • The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World
  • Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality
  • The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos
  • Human Compatible: Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control
  • Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies
  • The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory
  • Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain
  • From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds
  • The World According to Physics
See similar books…
See top shelves…
Sean Carroll is a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1993. His research focuses on issues in cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His book The Particle at the End of the Universe won the prestigious Winton Prize for Science Books in 2013. Carroll lives in Los Angeles with his wife, writer Jennifer Ouellette.

News & Interviews

  Mary Roach is a science author who specializes in the bizarre and offbeat. With a body of work ranging from deep-dives on the history of...
34 likes · 5 comments
“Illusions can be pleasant, but the rewards of truth are enormously better.” 18 likes
“As we understand the world better, the idea that it has a transcendent purpose seems increasingly untenable.” 12 likes
More quotes…