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The Human Cosmos: Civilization and the Stars

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A Best Book of 2020 NPR
A Best Book of 2020 The Economist
A Top Ten Best Science Book of 2020  Smithsonian  
A Best Science & Technology Book of 2020 Library Journal
A Must-Read Book to Escape the Chaos of 2020  Newsweek
Starred review  Booklist
Starred review Publishers Weekly

An historically unprecedented disconnect between humanity and the heavens has opened. Jo Marchant's book can begin to heal it.

For at least 20,000 years, we have led not just an earthly existence but a cosmic one. Celestial cycles drove every aspect of our daily lives. Our innate relationship with the stars shaped who we are--our art, religious beliefs, social status, scientific advances, and even our biology. But over the last few centuries we have separated ourselves from the universe that surrounds us. It's a disconnect with a dire cost.

Our relationship to the stars and planets has moved from one of awe, wonder and superstition to one where technology is king--the cosmos is now explored through data on our screens, not by the naked eye observing the natural world. Indeed, in most countries modern light pollution obscures much of the night sky from view. Jo Marchant's spellbinding parade of the ways different cultures celebrated the majesty and mysteries of the night sky is a journey to the most awe inspiring view you can ever see--looking up on a clear dark night. That experience and the thoughts it has engendered have radically shaped human civilization across millennia. The cosmos is the source of our greatest creativity in art, in science, in life.

To show us how, Jo Marchant takes us to the Hall of the Bulls in the caves at Lascaux in France, and to the summer solstice at a 5,000-year-old tomb at New Grange in Ireland. We discover Chumash cosmology and visit medieval monks grappling with the nature of time and Tahitian sailors navigating by the stars. We discover how light reveals the chemical composition of the sun, and we are with Einstein as he works out that space and time are one and the same. A four-billion-year-old meteor inspires a search for extraterrestrial life. The cosmically liberating, summary revelation is that star-gazing made us human.

400 pages, Hardcover

Published September 1, 2020

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About the author

Jo Marchant

22 books162 followers
Dr Jo Marchant is an award-winning science journalist based in London. She has a PhD in genetics and medical microbiology from St Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical College in London, and an MSc in Science Communication (with a dissertation in evidence-based medicine) from Imperial College London. She has worked as an editor at New Scientist and at Nature, and her articles have appeared in publications including The Guardian, Wired UK, The Observer Review, New Scientist and Nature. Her radio and TV appearances include BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week and Today programmes, CNN and National Geographic. She has lectured around the world. Her book Decoding the Heavens was shortlisted for the 2009 Royal Society Prize for Science Books.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 154 reviews
Profile Image for Krista.
1,399 reviews591 followers
August 18, 2020
Looking back over the history of our relationship with the cosmos shows how we’ve banished gods, debunked myths and written our own, evidence-based, creation story. Stripping out subjective meaning and focusing on quantifiable observations has given us an epic power to understand and shape the world that dwarfs anything that has gone before. But unchecked, it has the potential to be a cold, narcissistic, destructive force. This is a book about how we closed our eyes to the stars. The challenge now is to open them again.

The Human Cosmos is an overview of humanity’s relationship with the night sky — from groupings of dots in the cave paintings at Lascaux that can be interpreted as constellations to the awe-filled experiences of astronauts at the International Space Station as they perform their first spacewalks — and in an incredibly wide-ranging and consistently fascinating variety of historical anecdotes, author Jo Marchant makes a solid case that the more we have relegated the study of the stars to scientists alone, the more we have lost something of what made us human in the first place. I loved every bit of this. (Note: I read an ARC through NetGalley and passages quoted may not be in their final forms.)

When scientists first split light with the spectroscope — turning its colors into numbers — they took one more step away from a subjective, qualitative view of the cosmos toward an objective, mathematical one: from an internal universe that we experience, to an external one that we calculate. And with the development of electronic detectors, our sense of vision — how the cosmos looks to us — was finally erased from the picture altogether. In this sense, modern astronomy is radically different from any kind of cosmological inquiry or understanding that has gone before. It no longer requires us to turn our faces to the sky. Our dominant source of knowledge about the universe — what it is, how it was made, how it relates to our life, and to us — is now our instruments, and not our eyes.

Marchant starts right at our beginning — with cave paintings and the construction of Stonehenge and the rise and fall of Babylonian kings — tracing how studying the stars led to superstitions and the divine rights of monarchs, and eventually, monotheism. In every section (with chapter headings such as Myth, Land, Faith, and Fate), she tells simply fascinating stories that explore humanity’s evolving relationship with the cosmos — and it would seem that everything (in the West) suddenly changed with Isaac Newton: with gravity proven as the fundamental force of nature, there was suddenly less need for divine intervention in ordering human affairs (Thomas Paine would eventually use the language of Newton to demand the equality of men as a “Natural Law” that led to the overthrow of kings; his subsequent release of Age of Reason would ultimately lead to the death of God; from that point on, the Milky Way could coldly spiral and the universe blindly expand with or without humanity). The new Rationalism and Positivism insisted on scientific facts as the only markers of reality, but eventually, Einstein and Quantum Mechanics and collapsing wave functions came to suggest that “reality” can never be measured separately from human consciousness. And while we have come such a long way from sacrificing to the sun gods to ensure another dawn, recent studies have shown that we are more in communion with the stars than we might suspect:

Doctors are realizing that most medical conditions display daily fluctuations in their occurrence or symptoms, including heart attacks, asthma, bronchitis, cystic fibrosis, strokes, fever, pain, seizures and suicide, to name just a few. The time of day can determine how we’ll respond to an infection or drug, or whether eating exactly the same meal will cause us to gain or lose weight. And even seasonal changes are important: the month in which babies are born affects their later risk of diseases such as dementia, multiple sclerosis and schizophrenia ( with opposite patterns in the northern and southern hemispheres). Scientists don’t understand exactly why (theories include early-life infection risk, nutrition, and vitamin D levels) but it’s clear that the position of the Earth relative to the Sun at the time you are born has health consequences that last for life.

(In 1954, an American Biologist named Frank Brown tried to publish his findings that clams will continue to be affected by tides — even correcting for local conditions — when moved inland and shielded from environmental clues. Brown knew that they were responding to electromagnetic cues from the sun and moon, but the idea was too outside the mainstream to be published or discussed at conferences — which I include as a curiosity when thinking about “scientific consensus”.) The Human Cosmos was full of so many interesting stories, I’ll just collect a few here: I had heard of Constantine’s celestial vision of a cross that led to his subsequent conversion and promotion of Christianity, but I never heard before that he never stopped his pagan sun worship, or that Constantine simply merged the two traditions in order to hedge his bets (which is why we hear that Christian holidays are co-opted pagan festivals) and this is where the Christian halo came from (“Thanks to Constantine, the humble teacher became a cosmic emperor, ruling over the universe with the radiance of the sun.”) When an assistant curator of the British Museum, George Smith, translated a section of The Epic of Gilgamesh in 1872 and realised that it was an alternate version of Noah and the Flood — written centuries before Genesis — “he reportedly became so excited that he started taking off his clothes”. Polynesian navigators who worked with Captain Cook in the Eighteenth Century were so in tune with subtle markers on the ocean — from the positions of the sun and moon to tidal swells, wind direction, and cloud formations — that if fog obscured the direction of waves approaching one’s canoe, “he stood with legs apart to feel the swell patterns using the swing of his testicles”. And I don’t know why it hasn’t made a more lasting impression on my memory that it was only in 1995 that astronomers discovered 51 Pegasus b — the first planet definitively identified outside of our own solar system; it has only been since 1995 that science has even contemplated the possibility of life on other planets because until then, they couldn't prove there were other planets.

I love that Marchant brings our relationship with the cosmos full circle: early humans were obviously filled with awe when they looked at the night sky and endeavored to understand its workings. This led to superstitions and pseudoscience, civilisation and religion, and eventually, the Scientific Method and its efforts to erase mystery. Today, when light pollution and traffic jams of satellites obscure most people’s vision of the heavens, we’re beginning to realise that perhaps we’re more connected to those celestial bodies than mathematical equations alone can explain (I was fascinated by her explanation of Panpsychism), and I’m left wondering how close we are to affordable space tourism and a return to widespread awe at the sight of the depthless cosmos. I will admit that this perfectly piqued my own quirky interests — Marchant even references Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind (an investigation into the use of psychedelics to prompt an awe-filled experience, which I loved) — so while this may not have wide appeal, I found it to be an engaging and informative read.
Profile Image for Tanja Berg.
1,904 reviews437 followers
February 5, 2021
This started off great, showing how humanity has evolved while gazing at the stars. How we have navigated by stars and developed society and religion, partly by looking at the sky. Great. I also agree that something has been lost with light pollution and while staring at mobile screens. However, the book descends into pan psychic mumbo-jumbo that is unappealing and unscientific.

I love looking at the night sky. I am often out in the dark and I will turn of my light, and stare at the milky way. This is a spectacle I feel deeply grateful for, it didn't use to be something I could partake in on a regular basis. Mostly because of light pollution. I live outside the worst of it now. I have vetoed lights around the house. I remember a course, done out in the woods, and lying on the grass after dinner looking at the stars. They seemed like they were dangling half way down to earth, and the dreamy, white Milky Way that I had not seen since I was a child, splashed across the sky. It's a transcendent experience and maybe even an evolutionary need. However, you do not need to be deeply spiritual otherwise to enjoy this, like the author tries to tell.
Profile Image for Natalie (CuriousReader).
500 reviews448 followers
October 13, 2020
The space-themed books of 2020 continues. Jo Marchant’s The Human Cosmos looks in a wider sense at human’s connection with what is ‘out there’ both from a historical point of view (how this relationship has evolved over time) as well as the multi-disciplinary effect the connection has had. Marchant sets out to explore how humans viewing off, studying, wondering and marvelling at the stars and space has influenced our lives; ranging from politics, time keeping, technological innovations, ideas of alien species, art creations, and beyond. She asks in a sense how our relationship to the stars has taken form in various domains, what it tells us about human history and where we are going.

Full Review: https://curiousreaderr.wordpress.com/...
Profile Image for David Wineberg.
Author 2 books732 followers
June 12, 2020
For all of Man’s time on Earth, the skies have played an outsized role. In a remarkable and engrossing book called The Human Cosmos, Jo Tarant has gathered evidence from all of history and before, demonstrating the deep penetration and influence of the cosmos on the way Man thinks, behaves, and believes. The result is a literary journey unlike any other I have read. It is so varied and yet so deep, it makes the reader want to plow into each subject she tackles even more. Whether it’s archaeology, paleontology, space travel or the invention of timekeeping, Tarant has a story to tell, and it’s always a stunning one, complete with citations, side trips and other perspectives. Including her own.

Many of the chapters manage to bloom around a central character. In Art, it is Kandinsky. In Power, it is Tom Paine. Paine, for example was a poor failure of an Englishman who gambled his last pennies on a one-way trip to the American Colonies (on Ben Franklin’s recommendation). When he arrived, he was at death’s door. He survived, and this self-trained corset-maker became the world’s most popular author, and not just once. His influence on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution can be seen loud and clear.

Similarly, Tarant frames chapters on the lives of inventors, academics and theorists who changed the knowledge base, or created a new discipline, or failed miserably in the effort. It’s a very human interest kind of book for one with such a literally lofty title.

Tarant divides her chapters into values, 12 of them. Each one takes a common aspect of human lives and humanity itself, and demonstrates with fascinating stories, theories and citations how the heavens have lit the way. They have simple one-word titles like Oceans, Faith and Mind, that allow her to gather a wealth of facts and present them as cohesive narratives. Each one is a standalone adventure, hooked to the stars. For Tarant, this extends to all living things, like proving that birds navigate by the Earth’s magnetic field, that dung beetles navigate by moonlight, and that butterflies navigate by the sun. Plants clearly rely on the sun for all they do.

She begins with the caves of Lascaux in France, where some kids discovered great halls of wall and ceiling paintings, peppered with star groups of the Pleiades and constellations as they then were and as men saw them. Prehistoric Man already had a sophisticated appreciation of the sun, moon and stars.

It is not a far trip to seeing and understanding the positioning of massive mounds in Ireland, Solstice clocks like Stonehenge, and how up to date the Ancient Greeks were in their understanding of how the world fit into the universe. Even the pyramids were aimed accurately and precisely due north. Man has always been about leveraging position using the heavens.

In Babylonia 3000 years ago, they were already mapping eclipses and recording moon and star movements for predictive purposes. In fact, the emperor was a knowledge junkie who collected clay tablets with everything that everyone knew from the entire known world. They survived because the fire that destroyed their capital, Nineveh, baked them into lasting for three thousand years until Nineveh was rediscovered and excavated, just in our lifetimes.

In Ancient Greece, they had pretty much figured it all out, calculating that the Earth must be round. In Rome, the Emperor Constantine, despite converting to Christianity and forcing his empire to as well, nonetheless put the sun on his coins and classified himself as the Sun Emperor.

Tarant dallies in the Constantine era to show how the stars made their way into Christianity. Christmas was chosen for the rather pagan date when the sun begins its track north again, four days after the winter solstice. Nothing whatever to do with the birth of Jesus, who was more likely to have been born in March. Easter, the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox, was a play to co-opt every other religion of the time, the sun-focused, the moon-focused as well as the Christians. Actual historical events played no role. Christianity was in competition for the hearts and souls of all, and the others had long-established winter and spring festivals. So Christianity had to exploit them too.

Yahweh long predates modern Judaism. He was already a God, but he had a wife, Asherah, and an active role among numerous Gods the Israelites worshipped. Some scholars cite Yahweh as a Sun God. After the Babylonians destroyed the Jewish kingdom in 586 BC, the religion started up again in 538 BC, this time with the help of the invading Persians. The new, updated Jewish religion combined the old stories with Zoroastrian influences from the Persians, who assisted in the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. But most importantly, this time it was with just one God, Yahweh, who could not be seen or even described. It was the greatest innovation in the history of religion, and changed the course of Western everything.

Five hundred years earlier, Babylonian astronomers were so busy with the stars that they divided up the sky into 12 equal sections, each one named for something easy to remember, like the constellations Aquarius or Gemini, solidifying the images the stars inspired. It was purely a housekeeping effort, so that astronomers could narrow the areas they were talking about and pointing to. But it soon went completely off the rails as people demanded to know how the position of the stars would affect their very being. So they made up great stories and attributed them to the planets and the constellations. It became big business. Even Galileo did horoscopes as a sideline.

At each stage, Tarant colors in the details with great stories of stumbling discoveries, unintended consequences, dramatic failure, and world-changing success. And everything is connected to our fascination with the stars. It quickly becomes remarkable as to just how pervasive this has been.

There is a great chapter on the oceans and how Man navigated using the sun and the moon, but particularly the stars. The Polynesians navigated completely differently from the Europeans, learning the whole Pacific Ocean and guiding themselves with stunning accuracy by the positions of stars, particularly at dusk as they first became visible. Captain Cook, the featured biography in the chapter, spent his time messing with sextants and trying to map the islands he visited, all with less accuracy and success than the natives, armed with nothing at all.

The invention of time is obviously a complex function of sun and moon, and the implications for recognizing time of day and time of year are world-changing events and trends. This also manages to circle back into religion, as the Egyptians, long before the Christians, already appreciated death and resurrection. Their Sun God, Ra, died every evening and was resurrected every morning.

Moving up to the present, Tarant describes the starry contributions of physics and quantum mechanics, and our latest fixation, space travel. Space has changed a number of astronauts for life, and not just because of time-shifting or weightlessness. When they get their first total view of the universe or the planet Earth, they are awestruck. A number of them have tried to explain how it has changed their lives. It has left them humbled. They sign their names smaller. They have a far keener appreciation of ecology and pollution. And of what really matters. As Apollo 14’s Edgar Mitchell put it: “From out there on the moon, international politics looks so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck, drag him a quarter of a million miles out, and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’”

The business of awe is something that changes people for the better. It calms them, takes away anxiety and depression, and puts everything in perspective. It makes them feel secure and part of something much larger and special. But you can’t do that on television; you have to experience it directly and be overwhelmed by nature. Between tv, computers and smartphones, there just isn’t enough awe going around, which Tarant says contributes to the state of Man today: tense, anxious, fearful and depressed.

Tarant says we have lost our connection to the stars along with the inspiration they provide. GPS has replaced even printed maps. There is no challenge, no adventure any more. Everything is onscreen, a very limited view of the universe of infinite things. Light pollution has long eliminated easy views of the Milky Way, leaving most people with only handful of the brightest stars in the sky. For many in the Far East, pollution permanently clouds the skies so they don’t even see that it is a lovely blue. We have abandoned our bearings in favor of a dirty technological substitute, she says.

Ultimately, the book is about losing the connection. For as long as there have been humans, they have looked to the skies for inspiration, support, pleasure and satisfaction. Now suddenly, in the latest speck of time, say 100 years, Man has separated from the skies. Just as he has separated himself from the ecological system, he is well into denying the influence of the stars. And he is far less contented for it.

David Wineberg
Profile Image for Jason.
44 reviews
January 30, 2021
"A[n]... account of our enduring and ever-changing relationship to the cosmos," "Vast in scope and meticulously researched... traces humanity's enduring relationship with our physical and cultural ancestors: the stars." Emphases mine to call attention to this bullshit—inclusive, this book is not.

I may be (hypocritically) reflecting my own cultural biases by illuminating Marchant's, but nevertheless... it is so frustrating to see South and East Asia almost completely effaced from Marchant's allegedly comprehensive account of the relationship between Man and the heavens beyond a cursory footnote here and there; any consideration of Asia in Human Cosmos is myopically confined to merely the Near East—and even then, often eventually connected to Greece and Rome, i.e. holding Europe as reference point once again, rehearsing the whole drama of Asia orbiting (pun intended) around Europe. Anyone with so much as a rudimentary awareness of Asian history would know just how much imperial China, with the royals of literally every dynasty sponsoring a whole bureau of court astronomers and mathematicians, deferred to and valued astronomy to the high heavens (pun intended), a cultism mirrored in other kingdoms and empires in the Sinosphere from Japan to Korea, so this wanton erasure of Asia is simply indefensible. Elsewhere, South America's veritable and long-lived engagement with astronomy is likewise eclipsed (pun intended) by White People and their Lives and Intellect save for a two-page honorary/obligatory mention of the Mayan Empire.

Even leaving this Eurocentric blindness and bias aside, the architecture of the book itself is wanting and haphazard: organizing content by way of tropes and themes (Fate, Faith, etc.) is innovative but it becomes wearisome fast. One can't help but feel that the treasure trove of material Marchant admittedly offers—despite its unjustifiable and offensive lapses—can be structured much more meaningfully and carefully.
Profile Image for Degenerate Chemist.
870 reviews28 followers
February 13, 2022
DNF at page 68

Apparently human = white guys and civilization = western civilization only. This book had me fooled for about 30 pages but we've already hit the Roman Empire this early on. The impressive knowledge of the Chinese, Egyptians, and Mayans aren't worth mentioning, but were gonna get 3 pages dedicated to Newgrange. If it doesn't 'lead to Rome' it doesn't count. Someday I'm gonna learn to stay away from NPR recommendations.

I'm not finishing this because the bias has already annoyed me.
Profile Image for Cecilia Shelter.
48 reviews1 follower
April 22, 2022
Maybee 3.5 stars? Idk. Had my hopes up for this one bc the topic is super interesting, but was a little disappointed and found myself struggling to finish it. Though there was nothing necessarily bad about the writing, it read more like a research paper or textbook at times, with some unnecessarily lengthy background about every person the author mentioned and parts where I wasn’t really seeing a connection to the main thesis. Another issue I had with the book was it being very very eurocentric, I was surprised to see barely any mention of non-western civilizations and would’ve loved to learn more about the relationship ancient eastern cultures had with the cosmos. It also didn’t help that just about every historical figure mentioned in the book was a white man.

However, there were some topics that were really fascinating such as how humans’ worship of the sun morphed into Christianity, how early humans’ experiences with psychedelics altered their understanding of the cosmos, how the invention of the clock completely changed our relationship with time, as well as the section on chronobiology.

She was also getting into quantum psychics near the end which seemed really interesting but at that point i was just trying to finish the book.
Profile Image for Ian M. Pyatt.
376 reviews
January 1, 2021
Mind Blowing!

What a wonderful read and was excited to learn so much more about the cosmos than I did before.

There were a small number of names, dates, inventions, discoveries I knew about from watching Discovery Channel, Science & History channels, National Geography books and TV shows, but there was so much more I did not know.

I thought the placement of the chapters was excellent as they flowed into each other with ease and simplicity.

And, now I know where the Barenaked Ladies got the idea for the theme song to TV's The Big Bang Theory and some of the story lines and names of the various scientists used in the show.

A book way outside my comfort zone, but a GR friend had read it and had a good review, and am glad I took a chance on the book and read it. If you like science related books, this is for you!
Profile Image for Caroline Middleton.
144 reviews11 followers
December 2, 2020
This ambitious cultural study of humanity's connection with the celestial landscape is an astronomical treat!

Marchant's passion for the stars is clear, her ability to connect disparate anecdotes from history - much like a constellation - and formulate them into insightful, utterly original arguments is what makes this book such a success. My favourite chapters were Time and Power - how the lunar and solar cycles were reconciled into a multitude of different calendars, how clepsydras (water clocks) and hourglasses were replaced with mechanical clockwork we recognise today, shifting attitudes towards work, agriculture and (yes) power, how civilisations since time immemorial have used the sun and the stars to forecast harvest, droughts and legitimise divine rule...it is riveting stuff. What is most pertinent, however, is the ending chapter: how we have become disconnected from our intrinsic relationship with the cosmos, harming our biology, health and even life satisfaction.

This is a tonic for all those intellectually curious about the anthropology of stargazing, a perfect companion with Rovelli's poetic tour-de-force 'The Order of Time' and Dunkley's back-to-basics 'Our Universe: An Astronomer's Guide'.
Profile Image for Victoria.
134 reviews13 followers
November 1, 2020
Cool introduction to a lot of history and philosophy of science concepts. Marchant uses humankind’s relationship with the cosmos as a neat vehicle to explore how we know what we know, covering topics like the beginnings of mathematics and measurement, the shift from humanism to enlightenment thinking and the interplay between our sense of self versus an infinite indifferent universe. The socio-political factors that contribute to society’s acceptance of different ways of understanding the universe and how scientific paradigm shifts come about are very nicely explained. She picks a few interesting, less well known characters from the annals of scientific progress for in-depth biographies. I’m not such a fan of the more speculative tone of the chapters towards the end of the book (on the search for extra terrestrial life, and mind and consciousness).
Profile Image for Rob Rey.
5 reviews
May 3, 2021
A trojan horse for panpsychism pseudoscience.

The first half of the book is very worth while. It's a great look at how humanity's early assumptions about the sky shaped myth, calendars, clocks and systems that we still use today without most people realizing where they came from. This is something that really needed to be covered and it does so with a good grounding in science. I had been waiting for a good book like this.

What a disappointment when the last chapter asserts cliches that science is cold and impersonal, that panpsychism is the answer, and it's on the cusp of sweeping the scientific esstablishment off it's feet. Science may not yet connect with the broader public the way it should, but then what we need is new poetic story telling to make the connection, not to throw away scientific principles and put pseudoscience back in charge.
Profile Image for Umbar.
186 reviews
September 8, 2021
Such a beautiful read. The last chapter really overwhelmed me and I cried and had an emotional response I really still can’t identify. It was an ode to the awe we feel looking up at the night sky and reminded me of all of the nights I’ve spent staring at the stars to Feel Something. If you’ve ever felt starstruck seeing the Milky Way for the first time in a long time or miss that vast feeling you get flying over endless oceans and varying landscapes you’ll love this book.

“But here the veil was lifted, as if returning me to something that I hadn’t even known was lost.”
Profile Image for Teemu Öhman.
135 reviews14 followers
June 15, 2023
Geneetikko- ja tiedetoimittajataustaisen Jo Marchantin kehuttu Ihmisen kosmos ei ala hyvin. Heti sivulta yksi, esipuheen riviltä kuusi alkaa tämmöinen virke: “Ensimmäisen sekunnin aikana kaikkeuden täytti sakea ja huumaavan kuuma hiukkaskeitto, jossa neutronit, protonit, elektronit, fotonit ja neutronit tönivät toisiaan ja sirottivat valoa sumun lailla.” Alkutekstissä, jonka Amazon ystävällisesti tarjoaa nähtäväksi, puolestaan lukee näin: ”...neutrons, protons, electrons, photons, neutrinos...”. Neutroni ja neutriino ovat aika lailla eri asia, ja tuo nyt muutenkin pistää melkoisesti silmään, kun neutronit mainitaan listassa kahdesti. Eikö kukaan oikeasti enää oikolue kirjoja ennen kuin ne julkaistaan? Luulisi, että joku kaveri tai tutun tuttu voisi kaljapalkalla oikoluvun tehdä.

Onneksi jatkossa noin pahoja sössimisiä ei enää ole. Puuttuvia tai ylimääräisiä välimerkkejä ja kirjaimia, parittomia lainausmerkkejä ja kökköjä taivutuksia (”apotti Hughilla”; s. 90) kirjassa kyllä on, omaan makuuni ihan liikaa. Tietysti kirjassa puhutaan myös monta kertaa”kristalleista”, kun ”kiteistä” puhuminen olisi oikein. Esimerkiksi WSOY:n perinteikkäässä Englantilais-suomalaisessa suursanakirjassa ensimmäinen tarjottu suomennos on kide, ja netissä esim. Sanakirja.org ja Google translate tarjoavat kristallin lisäksi myös kidettä. Eikö suomentajille ja toimittajille koskaan tule mieleen tarkistaa, mitä suomenkielisiä sanoja käytetään sillä tieteenalalla, josta tekstissä on kyse? Kuten ehkä angstini määrästä huomaa, tämä ei ole ongelma vain tässä kirjassa, vaan valtaosassa suomenkielistä populaaria tietokirjoittelua. Outoa on, että Ihmisen kosmoksessa myös ”kide” on mainittu pari kertaa, mutta valtaosin höpötellään new age -henkisesti ”kristalleista”.

Sivulla 137 on aika erikoinen ja täysin perustelematon väite: Thomas Painesta ”tuli maailman menestynein kirjailija.” Menestystä voi tietysti mitata monella mittarilla, mutta entäpä Raamatun tai Koraanin kirjoittajat, Shakespeare tai Christie? Tai Barbara Cartland ja Danielle Steel? Sivulla 152 Paineen palataan todeten, että vuonna 1791 ”hänestä tuli jälleen historian nopeiten myyvä kirjailija.” Lähdettä en tuollekaan väitteelle löytänyt.

Samalla pääsen känisemään siitäkin, että Marchantin tapa merkitä lähteet on äärimmäisen ärsyttävä. Lähteet kyllä periaatteessa löytyvät, mutta kirjan lopusta luvuittain listattuna, ja sivunumerojen tai viitenumeroiden sijaan Marchant käyttää sanan tai muutaman katkelmia tekstistä tai avainsanoja. Satunnaisena esimerkkinä: Sivulla 340 sanotaan vain, että luvussa ”Mieli” kohdassa ”Tulokset ovat olleet yllättäviä” lähteenä on ”tiivistelmä artikkelissa Marchant, ’Awesome awe’;”. Varmaan jossain kerrotaan, mistä tämän Awesome awen mahtaisi löytää, mutta koska kirjassa ei ole aakkosellista lähdeluetteloa, etsiminen menee turhan hankalaksi. Sivulla 334 ”vautsivaun” lähteeksi on merkitty ”’ALH84001’, Martian Meteorite Compendium”. En tiedä, kertooko Marchant jossain aiemmin, että kyseessä on NASAn Johnsonin avaruuskeskuksen ylläpitämä nettisivusto, jonka alkujaan kokosi Chuck Meyer ja jota hänen eläköidyttyään on päivittänyt Kevin Righter. Mutta joka tapauksessa: ei näin.

Suomessa on perinteisesti suomennettu entisaikojen hallitsijoiden nimet. Siksi minulla sivulla 166 tökkää pahasti, kun puhutaan ”Maximilian Josephista” eikä suinkaan Maksimilian (I) Joosefista. Samanlaista erittäin ärsyttävää laiskuutta on sivulla 205, jossa puhutaan ”Ilja Chashnikista”. Eloonjäämisvenäjäni mukaan oikeampi translitterointi (mitä tuossa ei siis selvästikään ole tehty, on vain otettu suoraan englanninkielinen muoto) olisi Ilja Tšašnik, koska hänen nimensä kyrillisin aakkosin on Илья Чашник. Ilman sitä puolen vuoden venäjänkurssiakin tuossa olisi mennyt vain muutama minuutti. On hyvin vaikea keksiä puolusteluja tällaiselle laiskuudelle.

Sivulla 169 on yläviite 3, mutta sille ei löydy minkäänlaista selitystä. Sivulla 173 taas on muuten vain hämmentävää tekstiä: ”...selittämättömiä pyöreitä sumukohteita, joita kutsuttiin planetaarisiksi sumuiksi. Uusimmat ja tehokkaimmat kaukoputket olivat paljastaneet, että monet niistä olivat oikeastaan yksittäisten tähtien ryppäitä, mikä tuki ajatusta etäisistä galakseista.” Tota... ei. En ihmettelisi, jos historian hämystä löytyy joku kohde, joka on alkujaan luokiteltu planetaariseksi sumuksi, mutta joka sittemmin on paljastunut galaksiksi, mutta minun tietääkseni pääsääntöisesti vanhat havaitsijat kyllä kutsuivat planetaarisiksi sumuiksi planetaaristen sumujen näköisiä kohteita, mitä galaksit eivät ole. En tiedä onko tämä sekoilu Marchantin vai suomentajan, mutta kun kirjassa muutama ”suom. huom.” on, niin aivan hyvin tähänkin olisi sellaisen voinut lisätä, koska tällaisenaan tuo kohta on joko vähintään erittäin kummastuttava tai vaihtoehtoisesti täysin väärin.

Sivulla 174 Christian Doppler yllättäen muuttuukin Christian Kepleriksi. Sivulla 185 puhutaan ”tiedemiehistä”. No juu, tuossa vaiheessa kirjaa käsitellään 1900-luvun alkupuolta, jolloin tutkijat olivat valtaosin miehiä, mutta koska englanniksi ei ole termiä ”science man” (vaikkakin tietysti man of science löytyy, ja onhan Marchant tuossa voinut sitä käyttää, vaikkakaan suomennoksen perusteella siltä ei vaikuta), niin olikohan tuo ”tiedemies” näin vuonna 2022 kuitenkaan ihan viimeisen päälle harkittu sanavalinta? Ja sanavalinnoista puheenollen: s. 186 ”arkkitehtuuriset” kuulostaa kovin oudolta, kun olisi voinut sanoa tutummin ”arkkitehtoniset”.

Sivulla 221 on aika mielenkiintoista biologiaa: ”...sääsken toukat muuntuvat aikuisiksi kärpäsiksi...”. Maailma on outo paikka, mutta ei todellakaan ihan noin outo. Asioita jätetään myös ärsyttävästi hieman ilmaan, esim. s. 224: ”Eliöt ovat kehittyneet miljardien vuosien ajan, ja aurinkokunnan rytmit ovat kirjaimellisesti niiden dna:ssa.” Joo-o, näin voi olla ja asia ainakin on äärimmäisen kiehtova, mutta Marchant ei mainitse sanallakaan sitä, että sen paremmin Maan pyörähdysaika akselinsa ympäri kuin Kuun kiertonopeus Maan ympärikään eivät ole olleet vakioita elämän kehityksen aikana. Edellinen tunnetaan kohtalaisen hyvin, jälkimmäinen selvästi huonommin (ainakin minun tietääkseni). On erikoinen valinta jättää tämä seikka kokonaan mainitsematta.

Sivuilla 242–243 on tarjolla eksoottista analytiikkaa Mars-meteoriitti ALH84001:stä: ”Sen molekyylikartoitus kertoi sen sinkoutuneen avaruuteen Marsin pinnalta 16 miljoonaa vuotta sitten...”. Oikeasti tuo tieto on saatu mittaamalla kyseisen kiven ns. cosmic ray exposure age, eli aika, kuinka kauan avaruuden kosmiset säteet ovat päässeet sitä pommittamaan kun se ei ollut Marsin tai Maan kaasukehien suojassa. En ole törmännyt sujuvaan suomennokseen tuolle, mutta ei se nyt ainakaan mikään ”molekyylikartoitus” ole. En taaskaan tiedä, onko tuo Marchantin vai suomentajan termi, mutta vaikka tämä onkin kai lähinnä humanisteille suunnattu kirja, niin ei kai aina välttämättä tarvitsisi valita sitä hölmöintä itse keksittyä mukatieteellistä termiä, vaan vaikka esimerkiksi sivun alareunan viitteessä (joita kirjassa muutenkin harrastetaan) kertoa, mistä oikeasti on kyse.

Joko minä sanoin jotain oikoluvusta? Eiväthän nämä kokonaisuuden kannalta ole isoja asioita, mutta todella hutaistu tuntemus tästä jää. Ja kun kirja on kovakantisena melkoisen kallis (norm. 36 €, Ursan jäsenhintakin 27 €), sitä odottaisi vähän viimeistellympää laatua.

Olen nyt pari sivua haukkunut kirjaa. Kehuakin sitä vähän pitää. Minä oikeasti pidin kirjan ensimmäisesti kolmesta vartista varsin paljon. Välillä kyllä harhaudutaan aika hataria aasinsiltoja pitkin kertomaan pitkästi esimerkiksi edellämainitusta Thomas Painesta, jota Marchant selvästi fanittaa. Toki yhteys tähtitieteeseen on, mutta ehkä vähemmälläkin olisi pärjännyt. Vielä huterammalla pohjalla ollaan, kun kirjassa kerrotaan pitkästi taiteilija Wassily Kandinskystä (joo, tuolla kirjoitusasulla hänet tunnetaan Suomessa, kai siksi että hän siirtyi Saksaan ja Ranskaan) ja etenkin Kazimir (eli perinteisesti Kasimir) Malevitšista. Itselleni hivenen epäselväksi jäi tähtien ja Malevitšin mestariteoksen Musta neliö valkoisella pohjalla välinen yhteys. Itse olisin lukenut näitä modernisteja/avantgardisteja/suprematisteja mieluummin esimerkiksi siitä, kuinka tähtitieteen muotivirtaukset vaikuttivat romantiikan ajan maalareihin tai vaikkapa impressionisteihin.

Kirjan parissa viimeisessä luvussa ”Oliot” ja etenkin ”Myytti” mennään sitten jo aika puhtaasti hörhöilyn puolelle. Sivulla 274 todetaan näin: ”Pelonsekaisen kunnioituksen ja transsendenssin laajentama tajunta sen sijaan ruokkii joustavuutta, luovuutta ja yhteydentuntua. Sen ansiosta hahmotamme laajemman todellisuuden, näemme jokapäiväisiä asioita pidemmälle ja teemme päätöksiä, jotka tekevät meistä onnellisempia yksilöinä, toimivat koko ihmiskunnan hyväksi ja pelastavat planeettamme.” Olen kyllä Marchantin kanssa samaa mieltä (ja minun tapauksessani kyse tosiaan on vain sen suurempaan asian ymmärrykseen perustumattomasta mielipiteestä), että psykedeelejä pitäisi tutkia huomattavasti enemmän ja että niillä voidaan saada aikaiseksi erittäin paljon hyvää, mutta että LSD-trippien tai taikasienten avulla noin vain pelastetaan planeettamme? Pikkusen eppäilen. Ylipäätään viimeisen luvun horinat tietoisista alkeishiukkasista ja universumista (tai multiversumista) ovat melkoisen puuduttavia ja samalla ärsyttäviä. Ymmärrän kyllä, että tämmöinen filosofinen tuuba on monien mielestä paljon kiehtovampaa kuin tylsissä tosiasioissa pitäytyminen, mutta meikäläisen kohdalla sekoboltseilu ei vain koskaan ole toiminut (paitsi Philip K. Dickillä, ja hänenkin kohdallaan vain tiettyyn rajaan asti).

Kaiken kaikkiaan tämä oli kyllä antoisa kirja, mutta olisin nauttinut siitä paljon enemmän ilman yhtä tai kahta viimeistä lukua ja joidenkin lukujen erikoisia painotuksia. Ja sen oikoluvun olisi ihan oikeasti voinut tehdä.

Lukemani versio on siis Ursan vuonna 2022 julkaisema ja Tuukka Perhoniemen suomentama Ihmisen kosmos – kulttuuri ja tähdet, kovakantinen, 360 s. Alkujaan ajattelin, että tämä saisi neljä tähteä, mutta loppu valitettavasti pudottaa tämän 3+:ksi, eli 3/5.
Profile Image for Tom.
400 reviews36 followers
September 23, 2021
"From both practical and philosophical perspectives, then, our personal connection with the cosmos is not a marginal, worthless bit of candy, worth discarding for technological convenience, but part of the essence that makes us human. Looking back over the history of our relationship with the cosmos shows how we've banished gods, debunked myths and written our own evidence-based creation story. Stripping out subjective meaning and focusing on quantifiable observations has given us an epic power to understand and shape the world that dwarfs anything that has gone before. But unchecked, it has the potential to be a cold, narcissistic, destructive force." Jo Marchant

I don't know which is more impressive, Marchant's command of such a wide range of material, from cave art to philosophy to astrophysics, or her always lucid and often eloquent prose. The science can get a bit thick at times, at least for humanities-oriented folks like me, but Marchant always ties it back to the bigger picture themes with clear generalizations.

Note: The subtitle listed above is not only wrong but misleading. The accurate subtitle is, "Civilization and the Stars." It's on the cover, for crying out loud.
Profile Image for Zosia.
494 reviews
February 23, 2021
This just isn’t a successful book for me. It has no through line - every chapter is a wildly different subject that she streeeeeches to fit into her topic (the cosmos). Much of it is interesting but none of it gels. I reserve anything below a 3 for books that personally offend me and this one didn’t, so it gets a 3. But. It was just a loose collection of thoughts that would’ve been better blog posts and often the disorganization made things drag.

HOWEVER, I did like the central idea she pulled together at the end: science is most things but not everything. Our ancestors got information and awe from looking directly at the sky - not with instruments - but with their own eyes. It made me want to look at the sky more and pay attention to how often I rely on devices for info when I could use my senses instead. 🌠
Profile Image for Paul Hartwell.
13 reviews2 followers
January 18, 2022
Stars. The Cosmos. I know, right? Is your woo-woo alarm going off? No, I want you to know it's not like that. At all. Or maybe, it's a lot more than that.

The author does an amazing job of navigating and correlating important events and sub-cultures in human history with our long-standing and undeniable fascination with the stars. The through-line is that it is impossible to separate all of the ways in which we consider ourselves to be 'civilized' from an often deep (and yes, mystical) understanding of 'the cosmos'. There are some pretty heavy 'to understand where we are going we must understand where we come from' moments to ponder and it challenges a lot of our long held beliefs and assumptions about human nature.

In the end I found that I was won over by the author's conclusion that today we too quickly dismiss our connection with the night sky. To put it another way, we all ought to spend less time scrutinizing our smart phones and bathing in the glare of our computer monitors, and spend more time in the dark staring upward with wonder.
45 reviews
May 27, 2021
This was a really impactful and thought provoking read and it really opened my eyes to how my understanding of the universe and our place in it was shaped by the time period that I'm living in. I just wish the book took a less eurocentric focus (or at least said that it was doing so from the get go) - it's particularly hard to stomach when you know of other cultures or individuals they could've mentioned in their narratives, but didn't.
Profile Image for Rachel.
828 reviews22 followers
February 23, 2021
Once I taught a course called "Intro to Humanities" for a community college in the South. The class was a chapter-by-chapter textbook walkthrough of all forms of capital-A Art: one week we learned about sculpture, the next music, the next architecture, then literature. It was SO much fun to teach and in the end we all had a great time but it made absolutely no sense--there would be no Intro to Sciences class that spent one week on biology, one week on physics, one week on psychology, etc.

Then I read this book, and I was proven wrong, and I realized there is oh so very much I do not at all hecking know about. Like all of science. All of it.

ENLIGHTENING, to say the least. Felt homeworky at times but that's due to my own ignorance of all science. All of it!
93 reviews4 followers
January 29, 2023
How has humanity’s viewing, wondering about and storytelling about the night sky shaped us? And what impact has the dimming of the stars behind smog and light pollution had on recent generations?

Humanity’s understanding of ourselves through history and prehistory can be traced through how we understood and watched the evening expanse. This book tells the story of our relationship to the night sky, from cave paintings of constellations, to gods, to Polynesian voyagers to scientists turning from their telescopes full of light to computer screens full of data.

There wasn’t a chapter that didn’t have me enthralled. I deeply felt the gains and losses of each new discovery and turning point of the story that Marchant weaver through this book. I appreciated her unique viewpoint on the benefits and drawbacks of a singly scientific and material approach to the universe - there is some deep truth the ancients could see in the stars that we are missing today - our nightly awesome experience of the swirling sky. I learnt a lot throughout. I have tried a lot of astronomical books but they are usually very dry, this was the opposite - human, spellbinding, enlightening. I highly recommend reading this one!
Profile Image for Kee Onn.
190 reviews1 follower
January 11, 2021
In the days before lamps and clocks, the night sky is an ever-present entity looming above our ancestors, its variegated displays and steady repetition inspiring creation myths and timekeeping practices. Seeking to understand the cosmos and our place in it, humans have devised increasingly complex models of mathematics, clocks, and abstract geometry - which brought us closer to understanding the universe, but at the same time detached our everyday lives from the source of inspiration. This book brings us on a journey from the earliest depictions of the heavens to the present, where scientists are beginning to find evidence of deleterious effects from humanity's reclusion from the night sky. Vast in its coverage of many different fields of scholarly works, the book pulls together a coherent, engaging story and delivers to readers a new, holistic view of the night sky.
25 reviews
July 20, 2021
This book did a great job emphasizing the role of the sky in our species’ story. It presented many interesting ideas: how for Neolithic people certain patterns in the sky would be linked to cyclical events like the birthing of deer thus emphasizing the sky’s importance, how the first large buildings may have been man made substitutes for caves used in rituals connecting people to the cosmos, the importance of priests wanting to pray at the right time helped develop clocks that decoupled timekeeping from the cycles in the sky. It also made a compelling argument for bringing subjectivity into how we relate to the heavens. Having just finished, I will try to remember that maybe it is the feeling of awe that loosens strongly held assumptions and increases a propensity towards selflessness. Next time I get to a place with less light pollution I’ll have to make sure and look up.
Profile Image for Felicia Caro.
194 reviews16 followers
Shelved as 'did-not-finish'
November 14, 2020
I used to be able to read long, comprehensive books such as this one that cover a lot of history and biography, however, it doesn't seem right for where I'm at in my life right now. There are so many fascinating themes and topics within the book (such as the positions of the planets and their orbits, the different ways people understood the cosmos from ancient times to today, and the importance of ancient art in showing how the cosmos influenced humanity's understanding of creation) but I'd prefer an in-depth look at one or two of these subject matters rather than an onslaught of information. I might go back to this one at another time.
Profile Image for Elsie.
658 reviews
February 6, 2022
The more I learn the more I realize how little I know. For example: how the invention of the mechanical clock has so wildly changed our connection with time, Newton’s physics and our relation to God (same for Galileo’s findings), our ability to recognize AWE in the world/cosmos affects our self awareness and happiness and compassion. Very thought provoking, particularly the perspective astronauts have shared from their “out of this world” experience: Edgar Mitchell after viewing the earth from space, “you want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of million miles out and say, ‘look at that you son of a b*+%!’”
Profile Image for Eliza.
88 reviews6 followers
June 12, 2021
Marchant splits this book into two halves, both equally as important in my opinion. The first details the orgins of comsology alonside the origins of humanity - beginning in the paleolithic times to modern in how humans have understood the mythology and science that governs the world around us. Then, Marchant, turns to more abstract themes in how cosmology is linked to forms of art and philosophy. I really appreciated that she took the time to present a broader view of potential realities. The reductionist approach of modern day thinkers can lead to progress, but it is also a cold and narcissistic way to view the world around us - ultimately giving more weight to mathematical theorems than human existence and experience.

A great read if you are looking to learn more about the history of astronomy/physics/cosmology or frustrated with the decreased emphasis of awe and wonder in today's world. If you think the fact we can no longer see the stars at night is a major problem for humanity, then this book is for you.
Profile Image for Eric Trotman.
39 reviews1 follower
October 17, 2021
An excellent read that had me interested and surprised multiple times throughout the book.

Marchant weaves poignant paradigm shifts of human culture and discovery through various carefully selected profiles of prominent scientists, discoverers are artists and how their unique perspectives changed our understanding and appreciation for the cosmos and what it means to be sentient, emotional begins on this planet.

I especially appreciated the last chapter on what psychedelics are teaching us about the mind and the universe that it contains.

Easily recommended, 4.25+
Profile Image for Prima Seadiva.
433 reviews4 followers
November 7, 2021
Audio book. Authors please stop reading your own books. So few can do it well. This author read so fast I thought there might be time limit. Made it very hard to follow.

Subject was okay. You can experience some sense of the awe she describes by viewing the night sky provided your locale isn't filled with light pollution. Mine has changed so much it's hard to see the stars. I get the sense that in most urban areas many people are oblivious, don't even notice the denizens of the night sky are not visible.
Profile Image for DRugh.
312 reviews
December 12, 2020
A great reminder that we are just a small part of a much much larger ecosystem. The chapters on life, consciousness, and myth interested me the most.
Profile Image for Mary Paradise.
55 reviews1 follower
June 28, 2021
Eye opening, awe inspiring, and spot on in terms of what our world needs
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