Book review: The Big Picture by Sean Carroll

26150770The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself by Sean Carroll
Publication date:
  10 May 2016 (US), 22 August 2016 (UK Kindle Edition), 01 September 2016 (UK Hardback)
Genre:  Non Fiction, Science
Length:  480 pages
Published by:  Penguin Group Dutton (US), Oneworld Publications (UK)
Available at:

My Rating: 3 out of 5


Does human purpose and meaning fit into a scientific worldview?

Already internationally acclaimed for his elegant, lucid writing on the most challenging notions in modern physics, Sean Carroll is emerging as one of the greatest humanist thinkers of his generation as he brings his extraordinary intellect to bear not only on Higgs bosons and extra dimensions but now also on our deepest personal questions.  Where are we? Who are we? Are our emotions, our beliefs, and our hopes and dreams ultimately meaningless out there in the void?

In short chapters filled with intriguing historical anecdotes, personal asides, and rigorous exposition, readers learn the difference between how the world works at the quantum level, the cosmic level, and the human level–and then how each connects to the other.  Carroll’s presentation of the principles that have guided the scientific revolution from Darwin and Einstein to the origins of life, consciousness, and the universe is dazzlingly unique.

Carroll shows how an avalanche of discoveries in the past few hundred years has changed our world and what really matters to us. Our lives are dwarfed like never before by the immensity of space and time, but they are redeemed by our capacity to comprehend it and give it meaning.

The Big Picture is an unprecedented scientific worldview, a tour de force that will sit on shelves alongside the works of Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, Daniel Dennett, and E. O. Wilson for years to come.

My Thoughts:

I received an ebook advanced-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you to NetGalley and Penguin Group Dutton for providing me with this copy.

The Big Picture brings together physics and philosophy to consider some of the big questions of life, the universe and everything.  This could have resulted in an unwieldy lump of a book, but this 480-page beast has been broken down into well thought-out sections and manageable chapters which walk you through Sean Carroll’s thought-process.

The book seeks show how our scientific understanding of the universe can explain how the universe came into existence, how life was an inevitable consequence of the laws of physics of this universe, and how consciousness is an inevitable consequence of life.  But it is also more than this; it is a thesis for independent and critical thinking, and a reassurance that a meaningful and moral life can be found within (and perhaps could be a logical consequence of) a naturalist state of mind.

The book begins with the cosmos, which seems like a fairly intimidating place to start, given its size and complexity, but is in fact a gentle introduction to the tone and style of the rest of the book.  It takes us through the fundamental nature of reality, where Carroll shows how ontology affects observation. This leads neatly to a definition of what Carroll calls “Poetic Naturalism”.  From here causality and the arrow of time are defined and explained, not only in terms of the words we use to describe them, but also in terms of physics, particularly at a quantum level.  This is an important foundation to build as it leads to an explanation of entropy and the second law of thermodynamics, which together explain both memories and causes, and thus how human beings experience space-time.

From this foundation, the book progresses to a section entitled “Understanding”.  This explores the different ontologies we employ in order to make judgements about information and form opinions about the things we believe to be true.  Carroll presents a number of ontologies, followed by analyses of their virtues and disadvantages.  The tone of analysis is logical and evenly weighted, ultimately leading to a conclusion that the Bayesian approach is the most even-handed.

The Essence section explores what we know about the universe, explains the quantum realm and how to interpret it.  A definition of the Core Theory is the presented, from which Carroll describes what we are made of, what the world is made of, and why the universe exists.  From this deep physics, he then discusses scientific understanding of the body and soul, and death.

Complexity explains the intricacy of the universe as an inevitable outcome of the laws of physics.  Entropy, the force which takes the universe from a state of order through a gradual decline into disorder, is described using the example of cream being mixed into coffee.  This lovely visual example shows how as an extremely organised state of particles (the cream sat on top of the coffee) is subjected to entropy (stick a spoon in and give it a quick stir) the coffee particles and cream particles become arranged in a complex and beautiful way before the process completes and the cream particles are evenly distributed within the coffee particles.  From here it explains how the universe as we currently observe it, in all its wonderful complexity and harbouring of life, is a natural state to find ourselves in as our universe transitions from extreme order into disorder.  You can probably tell – this was my favourite section of the book.

Part five explores consciousness, and the enigmatic structures that are our brains.  This naturally progresses into a discussion of artificial intelligence, and explores the question “could a computer become conscious?” and “how does consciousness arise?”  Carroll doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but does clearly explain what science knows so far, where the gaps are, and what can reasonably be inferred until further scientific knowledge is gained.  In seeking to address the questions surrounding consciousness, Carroll acknowledges that ultimately we are all built from inanimate particles, and postulates on various trains of thought that might prove useful directions of enquiry.

The final section moves away from physics, and sits itself firmly in the realms of philosophy.  Carroll asks how we can find meaning in our lives while existing in a universe that keeps moving without apparent regard for our existence.  He gives his views on spiritualism, and how those who prefer to live by a naturalist ontology can find meaning and fulfilment.  This leads to a discussion of the various incarnations of the Ten Commandments, and Carroll’s offering of the Ten Considerations.  With these in mind, he seems to suggest, we can find both personal fulfilment and make the world a better place.

The physics in this book is fascinating.  I enjoy reading popular science books for the joy of being introduced to new concepts. The Big Picture covered a lot of concepts I had read in other books, but shed new light on them, showing the consequences of those concepts on the world we observe.

It was heavy reading, requiring a lot of focus in order to keep track of the sheer volume of information and to fully understand each argument and concept.  In a month where my reading time has been fragmented and brief, keeping up with this book was hard work.  It definitely requires a time commitment, and I think would be more easily read over a shorter time span.  It is an intriguing read, and has left me with plenty to think about.


2 thoughts on “Book review: The Big Picture by Sean Carroll

  1. Pingback: Podcast: The Big Picture by Sean Carroll | The Wordsworm

  2. Pingback: From the archives – June | The Wordsworm

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