The Universe by John Brockman

Here we are at the shortest day 2014. As the year ends the plaintive cries are familiar -‘Where has the time gone? Just whizzed by. Been busier than ever, what with paying the mortgage, full time job, social whirl, taxi service for the kids, the tyranny of the smartphone, the superfluity of entertainment options. Better that way – Devil makes work for idle hands etc.’ Or is it better?

There is a precisely contrary view. It finds expression in a superb poem by William Henry Davies called Leisure

‘What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows…..

…. A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

The sentiment is equally well expressed by Wordsworth in the lines:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers

Commentators and social scientists have been observing this obsession with ‘busy-ness’ and work. For example, Madeleine Bunting ( in ‘Willing Slaves’, had no trouble at all in convincing me that millions of workers have been hoodwinked in a kind of second wave of exploitation since the Industrial Revolution into serving up their lives for the profits and enrichment of others. You may know someone who is exhausted by work and permanently under stress? Perhaps that person takes a smartphone and tablet to a wi-fi hotspot on the beach whilst on holiday? Work, seemingly, has become an end in itself and we all worship at the altar of Efficiency, praise be upon its name. All our thoughts have to be ‘target-driven’, and we are crushed under the ghastly ‘new managerialism’. By the time pension day arrives, the hapless victim of the overwork culture looks back and wonders where the best years of their life have gone.

The relentless pace of modern life seems not to be for us anymore. Many surveys show that we are less happy than in the 1950s despite our vastly elevated levels of consumption. Turn to this article for reflection on the matter. It is one of many lamenting our ‘too-fast- too-furious’ lifestyles.

One topic that may have been squeezed out by the hectic 2014 schedule is of no consequence whatever, namely the origins and destiny of the Universe. Never fear. A handy paperback has appeared from John Brockman ( and to ‘bring you up to speed’.

In The Universe: Leading Scientists Explore the Origin, Mysteries, and Future of the Cosmos (8 July 2014), Brockman brings together the world’s best-known physicists and science writers—including Brian Greene, Walter Isaacson, Nobel Prize-winners Murray Gell-Mann and Frank Wilczek, and Brian Cox—offering a super quick ‘heads up’ on the subject. Lee Smolin reveals how maths and cosmology are helping us create a theory of the whole universe. Brian Cox offers new dimensions on the Large Hadron Collider and the existence of a Higgs-Boson particle. Neil Turok analyses the fundamental laws of nature, what came before the big bang, and the possibility of a unified theory. Seth Lloyd investigates the impact of computational revolutions and the information revolution. Lawrence Krauss provides fresh insight into gravity, dark matter, and the energy of empty space. Brian Greene and Walter Isaacson illuminate the genius who revolutionized modern science: Albert Einstein and much more.

So if time permits in 2015, and you’re feeling like a sheep or cow, enquire at your local library for some leisurely reflection about the Universe. The book is otherwise available at

For another grab at ‘me time’ listen to the BBC Radio 4 ‘In Our Time’ 30 minute episode on The Origins of the Universe. Available from the link  With Professor Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and Royal Society Research Professor in Astronomy and Physics, Cambridge; Professor Paul Davies, theoretical physicist and Visiting Professor at Imperial College, London. Chaired by Melvyn Bragg. First broadcast Thursday 20 May 1999.

I wish you a leisurely, and a book filled, 2015.

379 pages in Harper Perennial paperback edition

ISBN  978-0062296085

John Brockman

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