Peter Atkins’ “On Being” is a wonderfully short book, coming in at just over a hundred pages. It’s a book about the nature of existence (of both the universe and of us).
It’s very much a pro-science book (Atkins was a professor of chemistry at Oxford University) and an anti-religion book (he’s a committed atheist). The main thrust is that given time science will be able to answer just about all of our questions concerning the fundamental nature of the universe, such as how it all started and what it actually is.
I like his description of the way that science is exploring the moments following the beginning of the universe (the Big Bang, as I wish it wasn’t called), slowly probing the edge of knowledge and cautiously pushing back the frontiers of knowledge until we hopefully understand the nature of the beginning of the universe itself – and his contrasting this cautious and slow approach with the religious approach of devising an appealing creation myth and leaving it at that.
Atkins is accused of being a dismal nihilist by his critics (mainly because they themselves find nihilism dismal), but I for one find myself thoroughly enjoying the possibly nihilistic stance of his work. Nihilism is a tricky thing to define anyway, as it has a certain amount of latitude in its definition. For instance it could be argued that although there may be no ultimate purpose to life, that doesn’t imply that it has no meaning to it. Meaning in this way may be defined as an emergent property.
I was pleased to find that a fair few pages of the first section of the book – which deals with the beginning of the universe – covers the concept that although the universe seems indubiously substantial to us (i.e. made of very solid stuff – at least in the regions such as stars and planets that punctuate the vast tracts of empty space), it is in fact made of Nothing!
This concept is very much along the lines that I describe in my own book on almost the same subject as Atkins’ book. It’s actually similar to the extent that he endows the profound nothing that lacks space and time the name Nothing with a capital N. Just as I do in my book. Click the image below to read the relevant chapter of my book.
Peter Atkins: On Being