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Book Review of Journey of the Universe

April 1, 2012

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Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker: Journey of the Universe
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011
Review by Julianne Lutz Warren
Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences
2:1 (2012): 106-109

Perhaps you have felt it, too. Consider the consequences of Enlightenment philosopher René Descartes’s well-known formulation—not God, but “man as ‘master and proprietor of nature,’” as Czech author Milan Kundera puts it (2003, p. 41). We realize now that human progress under such human oversight has surprised us. In spite of discovering “miracles” of science and technology along the way, our path has not brought us into the better world we thought we wanted. It has conveyed us rather into the shadowlands of our Imperial dreams. Nature is vanishing from the planet. We have forgotten, contrived, or have never known most of history. We have not even been able to control our own irrational passions. So Kundera asks, “if God is gone and man is no longer master, then who is master?” “The planet is moving through the void without any master,” he suggests. This dismemberment from what you know you must belong to and can rely on feels like a cavernous emptiness in the center of your gut—it is, he says, the “lightness of being” (2003, p. 41).

Journey of the Universe in words and images eloquently reminds us that our planet is not moving through a void. The universe is not merely a container for large things like stars and planets and small things like humans, honeybees, and atoms. In fact, the universe itself—filled with a hundred billion if not a trillion galaxies—has expanded for 14 billion years and continues to do so. The universe as a whole is changing. It is unfolding with its own story—with “a beginning, a middle (where we are now), and, perhaps in some unimaginable future, an end” (p. 6). The complementary book and film versions of this magnificent story are co-authored by Brian Swimme, an evolutionary cosmologist who also hosts the film, and by religion and ecology scholar Mary Evelyn Tucker, who, with John Grim, is also the film’s co-producer and co-founder of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology ( The work continues the legacy of “ecologian” Thomas Berry, author of Dream of the Earth(2006).

This line of storytellers also reminds us that, indeed, while history may often elude us, as Kundera suggests, with the help of science, we have learned more about the deep past in the last couple of centuries than in the past 100,000 years—from “a great flaring forth of light and matter” (p. 5) to the emergence of life on Earth to the evolution of symbolic consciousness bringing us to the edge of the “darkest night” (p. 117) of the hidden future. Moreover, the universe story addresses concern over human recklessness by plaiting the evidences of science with the durable ancient wisdom of our planet’s diverse cultures and faiths. For all ways of knowing come to bear on deeply pressing questions related to human responsibility and meaning, ever more so because we must address them from within an Earth we have already gravely altered: “Where did we come from? How should we live together? How can the Earth community flourish?” (p. 5). Inherent in this final question, the authors offer an alternative to the nature-vanquishing attitude of mastery and proprietorship—a reorientation into a new order of well-being. “Perhaps our destiny,” the authors write, is “to become a form of human being that is as natural to the universe as the stars or the oceans; knowing how we belong and where we belong so that we enhance the flourishing of the Earth community” (p. 113). This is a way out of “the lightness of being” into the brightness of mature hope.

The sun shines in a clear sky. The aqua waters of the eastern Aegean Sea lap the pebbly shore of the island of Samos. Swimme appears—a charismatic blend of Mr. Rogers and Harrison Ford. “Morning on a Greek Island,” he warbles, “is like the first day of creation and wandering around here you feel like the first person.” The film version of the story could be told from anywhere, but Swimme explains that Samos was chosen because it is a cross-roads of humanity—Asians, Europeans, and Africans—and contains a historic concentration of symbolic culture; it is the birthplace of Pythagoras, who perceived the sensual essence of the universe in number and pattern; and it is a good reminder that Earth is also an island within the ocean of the universe. Using film to do what only it can do—to locate images through time—Swimme tells the story in the course of 1 day, from the predawn birth of the universe to the midnight currently shaped in destructive ways by humans. No matter how you tell it, it is, of course, an unfinished journey.

Whether you have or have not been fortunate enough to be near one of the many venues showing the movie since its premiere at Yale University in March 2011, you now can go online to the website—, a helpful resource itself—and order a copy for yourself and your students and friends along with copies of the slim book. Strikingly, in both forms, the co-authors managed to fit 14 billion years of grandeur along with humanity’s most fundamental questions into small spaces. The film is 56 minutes long and the book a mere 118 pages organized into 11 chapters plus a helpful “Timeline” appendix and index. They are both perfectly tailored for classroom use and various communal venues—offering a common ground for discussions among people of myriad points of view. Plans are also underway to translate the film from English into 12 other languages.

In both the book and the film the authors employ multiple visual and metaphorical images in order to explore the universe and its meaning. For example, the structure of the universe unfurls as from a tiny ball; it is as if it has lungs and heart expanding and contracting; it is filled with complexifying communities; and it is like a developing seed (p. 9). Furthermore, the images used are carefully chosen in order to help reorient readers’ and viewers’ thinking away from managerial notions and toward ones better reflecting human harmony within the self-organizing processes of the cosmos and life on Earth. So, in picturing the process by which photosynthesis was brought forth, the authors discard an engineering or blueprint metaphor in favor of “a poetic analogy to nature’s groping creativity” (p. 55). The emergence of photosynthesis is like an infant’s trial and error development as she seeks nourishment from her parents out of a deep desire to exist. Alternatively, in the film—which shifts between high tech images of star and galaxy dynamics to colorful shots of whirlpools in a stream, lizards mating, a time-lapse view of a climbing tendril, and dancers dancing to rhythmic, seductive music—we are asked to see and hear Earth and Sun as two lovers longing for each other. What do they desire, but deepening entwinement? Earth, if not alive, is actively life-generating. Earth’s life learns how to feed from its red-hot partner.

The biggest criticism I have is one that actually turns out to be another word of high praise. The authors’ elegant craftsmanship—weaving an immensity of insight into such a rich tapestry of crisp images—left me wanting more details. In other words, remarkably, the authors never left me confused or feeling like an outsider even in unfamiliar intellectual territory, but they stoked my curiosity. Readers and viewers will find treatments of an interdisciplinary range of concepts readily accessible, including dark matter, quarks and leptons, coevolution and female choice, religious ideas about the sun, and ideas of famous thinkers such as Pythagoras, Charles Darwin, Descartes, and Ilya Prigogine. Prigogine, a contemporary Nobel-winning chemist, takes us beyond Descartes’ assumptions about the passivity of matter, which thus can be mastered, to show matter’s intrinsic self-organizing dynamics to which we owe our complex existence. So be cautioned: you might be prompted to learn more. For this, the chapter-by-chapter bibliography is helpful—as will be, no doubt, the forthcoming educational DVD series, drawing from experts in a range of fields.

At least as vital as the new knowledge the universe story conveys is the way it awakens a deepening sense of our vast ignorance. Paradoxically, that is, this story, grounded in the most up-to-date scientific understandings about the material world, prompts fresh celebration of ancient mysteries. The story ignites wonder—at the existence of the first tiny point of trillions of degrees hot light and matter, at why the universe expanded at just the right rate necessary for life to emerge and develop from single cells with the power of discernment built into their outer membranes to mother bears who protect their offspring, and humans who can turn the focus of their whole lives on becoming better dancers. Because life cannot comprehend in totality the immensity of our vastly creative context, learning appears to be a process that will continue as long as life does. “Life learns,” the story gives us to see with amazement. And amazement may dazzle us not only into humility, but also into courage to live with uncertainty and fear without giving into the “compulsion to control” (p. 117).

The whole Earth is now in the grip of the paradox of human control, which has created a positive feedback loop of uncertainty because we cannot predict, prevent, or repair as needed all the consequences of our actions. In this situation, what remains worthy of our confidence? What is it good to desire? What, in other words, defines responsible hope? The authors point us to three elements to consider. In fact, one more particular way to approach the universe story as a whole is as a triptych—of stars, of ocean, and of human handiwork. As readers and viewers enter into contemplations of this interconnected triad, we each may discover entry points into our own stories as yet unimagined. We may learn to feel not like empty-bellied individuals “on a planet moving through a void without any master,” nor as masters of that planet, but to know ourselves as participants in the story of an emerging community.

In early myths, people intuited they were children of stars, something also uncovered by modern science. The essence of the universe story, explains film host Swimme is this: “The stars are our ancestors. Out of them everything comes forth.” They are born, develop, die—and are reborn. Stars exist dynamically in a “shimmering disequilibrium” between the forces of gravity and nuclear fusion. When they blast apart in a supernova explosion, the process recreates all the elements of the universe—phosphorus, oxygen, carbon, and gold--which drift, collapse again into another star, Earth, our bodies. A moment of profound destruction thus may also be one of manifold creativity. We are stunned by stars’ beauty in the night sky. They have guided civilizations for generations. They have inspired our artwork. Knowing that the stars are our relatives, we can wonder at ourselves pulsing with potential just as brilliant. Surely we cannot be bereft on a lonely planet if we belong to the family of stars.

The ocean is “a power that can dissolve things into itself”—even the hardest rocks over a long enough time erode into the ocean’s waves, write Swimme and Tucker (p. 114). It was in deep sea vents at the bottom of the ocean floor that life began some four billion years ago. And terrestrial life, by death and gravity, is eventually returned to the sea. “To commune,” Swimme and Tucker write, “may be one of the deepest tendencies in the universe” (p. 51). The long-term trend of the cosmos, and of Earth itself, has been toward increasingly intricate interconnectedness—more and more relationships, with intensifying potential for deepening intimacy. With the dawn of human imagination, for the first time within Earth, it became possible for life to care not only for its own children, but to identify compassionately with all beings. Through love, humans may flow into and become one with any member of the ocean of life. Such loving intimacy may satisfy the craving void we may be feeling in our bellies.

Thirdly, in the unfolding triptych of hope, we can think about what we make “as a way to reflect on human destiny,” the authors suggest (p. 115). Our greatest invention so far has been language—more specifically, “the symbol.” Unlike DNA, another form of memory, symbols allow us to store our insights outside ourselves in human culture—written on stones, in computers, in engines, architecture, music, and sculpture. Because of our symbolic consciousness, we can remember and we therefore can also dream. This “set fire to human possibility” and transformed the world, Swimme explains in the film. In the far distant past, he says, the development of life drew forth symbolic consciousness. Now, in a direct reversal, however, symbolic consciousness has “seized control of life.” In the movie, our host guides us within the Archaeological Museum of Samos. He stands next to a sculpture of a man—larger than life—illuminated with pale blue light. Imagine moving in the midst of many such statues, Swimme suggests. Imagine living among them. You might start to imagine yourself as a god. The camera shows us a woman dressed in a white uniform overseeing a never-ending parade of plucked-pink turkeys. Hung by their footless legs, they swing by on a shiny silver conveyor. Smokestacks spew smoke. A machine as big as a building mines a tar pit. An irrigation ditch flows into the horizon of a desert. We see a vast field of crops striking in their uniformity—green, red, and yellow rows. “What does it mean,” the authors ask, “when even the seeds begin to live not just in the Earth but in an Earth shaped by human consciousness?” (p. 97).

It means that we have entered a great transition. Our progress has surprised us. Because we believed that we were bigger than life, trying out the role of “master and proprietor of nature,” we are having trouble feeding and housing our population quickly approaching seven billion people, soil fertility is eroding faster than it is building up, ice caps are melting, coral reefs the size of mountains are bleaching white, thousands of species are going extinct each year (100–102). Life is vanishing. And, the more we withdraw from these realities, the more we forget, the more we feel the lightness of being, the more life vanishes with ourselves among the vanquished. We are in the shadowlands of our earlier dreams.

A clock tower against a star-spangled night sky says one minute to midnight. Swimme boards a small boat at day’s end on Samos as moonlight shimmers on the sea. “Our destiny is woven into the mystery of creativity and time,” the authors write (p. 116). A moment of destruction can also be a moment of profound creativity. We can decide to use our symbolic consciousness in fresh ways. We can learn to put our hands to good work resonant with the universe’s dynamics—not as managers but as members. Swimme sums up the universe story in one sentence: “Over the course of fourteen billion years hydrogen gas transformed itself into mountains, butterflies, the music of Bach and you and me and these energies coursing through us may indeed renew the face of Earth.” The camera pulls back for a view of our planet: “We belong here,” says Swimme; “we’ve always belonged here” within the universe, along with the stars and the ocean. To belong is not only our hope and our destiny, but our dignity.


Berry T (2006) The Dream of the Earth, 2nd edn. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco

Kundera M (2003) The Art of the Novel. Harper Perennial, New York

Book Review of Journey of the Universe

April 1, 2012

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