So many books published these days seem to deliberately ignore the forest for the trees, or the leaves, or the chloroplasts, or the chemistry of biopigments. Readers interested in big questions usually have to make do with the obligatory summing-up at the end, in which the author tries to justify his or her narrow interest through heroic feats of recontextualization. The Book of the Cosmos: Imagining the Universe from Heraclitus to Hawking, on the other hand, is 600 pages of well-expressed deep thought on the biggest picture of them all. In roughly chronological order, editor Dennis Danielson presents 85 sets of excerpts from big thinkers from biblical times to the present, introducing each to the modern reader with insightful running commentary that is consistently helpful without being obtrusive.
The ancient Greeks hit the ground running, leaving us a rich conceptual legacy, which we are still exploring and exploiting even as our own work becomes more and more machine-mediated. Danielson gives us a wide base of ancient thought to give a sense of our heritage. He includes both obvious choices, such as Plato, and lesser-known writers, such as Parmenides. The often neglected Middle Ages brought us Ptolemy, Moses Maimonides, and others who set the stage for the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and the writings from these times betray an unexpected continuity of thought between the ancient and modern eras. Of course, the late-20th-century selections of such writers as Freeman Dyson and Steven Weinberg, which close the book, shouldn’t imply an end to cosmological thinking. If anything, the last chapters of The Book of the Cosmos provoke a hunger for more.