On being: a scientist's exploration of the great questions of existence

On being: a scientist’s exploration of the great questions of existence
Peter Atkins
Oxford University Press
2011 | 128pp | ?10.99 (HB)
ISBN 9780199603367
Reviewed by Robert White 


In this slender book, Peter Atkins outlines current understanding of the birth, life and death of both the universe and individuals. They are reasonable scientific descriptions, provided you do not mind his unconstrained musings on how the universe is really ’Nothing’, or a whole chapter devoted to the decay and putrefaction that his body would suffer following his imagined death. Patricia Cornwell fans will feel right at home! 

The book rubbishes religious perspectives on the nature of our place in the universe. It makes no attempt to understand religious perspectives and engage with them. Instead there are cheap laughs, such as commenting that the heaven of believers is ’a kind of celestial Poundbury’. Much space is spent ridiculing potty ideas, such as that of the Australian High-God Karora who produced bandicoots from his navel and men from his armpits. If these were mere interludes, they might provide light relief from a serious subject. 

When it comes to discussion of central religious themes, such as heaven and hell, Atkins proclaims that they are low fruit for rational discussion. Sceptical people, he writes, ’wade through windfalls, . step on squashy plums, overripe grapes, engorged figs, apples of such luscious ripeness that even the wasps weep for joy.’. In my opinion, this is not rational discussion of serious religious claims. 

Atkins does, however, spell out the consequences of his vision: ’all actions, be they physical or cerebral, are purposeless’; and ultimately ’we shall have gone the journey of all purposeless stardust ... inescapably returned to nothing’. For him, this knowledge is ’the sound and firm foundation for the joy of true comprehension’. 

RSC members can purchase this book direct from the publishers for a 25% discount on the RRP. See the member benefits link on this page.