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Book Review: The Sacred Depths of Nature by Ursula Goodenough

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As a Professor of Biology at Washington University, Ursula Goodenough is one of America's leading cell biologists. Her book, The Sacred Depths of Nature, combines the wonders of the physical world with the marvels of human thinking. At first, her book might be seen as reducing all existence to mere scientific concepts according to laws of physics and chemistry. Yet, each chapter ends with thoughtful reflections that lift the human spirit.

Before she became involved with scientific studies, Goodenough used to see wonder and beauty in the utter simplicity of the night sky – its infinity of stars and planets. Today, she feels her childlike amazement has been enhanced rather than diminished by science.

After a thorough examination of the universe's beginning, Goodenough explains that the myriad transformations of energy, which occurred during and after the Big Bang, are more cause for wonder and excitement than her original, primitive, view.

Just the thought that the Big Bang occurred at all, she would exclaim, can thrill anyone who considers the monster force or forces that caused such an explosive incident. Equally mesmerizing are the physical laws the Big Bang is now following as all-that-is keeps on evolving after billions of years. It is one thing to describe the vast energy exchanges that brought forth our solar system and planet earth. It is quite another to contemplate why!

Equally mysterious is this: From high-energy physics during the cooling off process of the universe, atoms began to bond in such a way as to create the water, carbon dioxide, and other chemicals necessary for life. Scientists have described in minute detail how these atoms have bonded, but are at a loss to explain why they sought these bonds in the first place.

And from these bonds occurring according to discoverable, ordered laws of nature, the first living creatures resulted. Goodenough explains in very understandable language how evolution works. Choosing simple life forms over a prolonged period of time, evolutionary laws select by adaptation to their environment, complete, complex, diversified organisms, eventually giving rise to the great apes which led to the formation of human life.

But the author attempts no explanation for human self-awareness which appears to separate us from the beasts of the earth, yet she does suggest that like every other mystery, some day, scientists will unravel thinking as they begin to understand and trace chemical and electrical firings of the axons and dendrites of the human brain.

Yet this makes no difference to Goodenough, because she claims that regardless of how it comes about — be it physical, mental, or spiritual — awareness leaves her with a sense of awe, a sense of immanence, when in the presence of beauty or love. She calls it a "path to the holy" where she loses herself in something "much larger than my daily self."

Immanence is for me very different from cosmic Mystery. Even as I don't understand it, it is nonetheless very immediate, and experienced, and known. It becomes part of my self that I most cherish and value….

The Sacred Depths of Nature is neither a long nor complicated book. Its author explains some extremely complicated ideas in terms any reader could understand. Among them are: origins of earth and life, how life works, how evolution works, what awareness is, what our emotions are, the meaning of death.

I would highly recommend this fascinating book to readers seeking meaning in their lives. The Sacred Depths of Nature is straight-forward science to the point of reduction, yet its insights and spiritual reflections at the end of each chapter lift it to a meditative, somewhat religious level. In many ways, the book is fuel for meditation because it will leave the reader with a sense of awe at the complexity of nature and, most of all, a feeling of reverent wonder.

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