Quaker Universalist Voice

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How Big is Our Home?

A Book Review of Paul Sutter, Your Place in the Universe: Understanding Our Big, Messy Existence (2018)

Paul Sutter, Your Place in the Universe: Understanding Our Big, Messy Existence (2018) is impressive in content, attractive in tone, and readable. The universal nature of our cosmology challenge is more implicit than explicit.  The clear idea of a shared, common challenge to human understanding as a whole is not evident, but all the facts are present for this conclusion.

Paul Sutter, the author, is a part of the Department of Astronomy at Ohio State University, the Center for Science and Industry, and the podcast “Ask a Spaceman!” (See http://www.pmsutter.com/shows/askaspaceman/)

The author’s tone is positive and breezy. The narrative thread is roughly chronological through the expansion of scientific understanding of what is out there in the universe. The voice is somewhat irreverent, chatty, and enthusiastic about weighty subjects.  It is akin to a conversation with a bright, cool graduate student.  He is very knowledgeable and explains difficult ideas in simple, clear words.  

The author was not careful in allowing the publisher to control the book title: Your Place in the Universe: Understanding Our Big, Messy Existence.  A more accurate book title would be: “Our Human Place in the Universe:  Understanding Our Big Universe and Our Substantial Human Ignorance.” 

The book feels like a series of expanded essays or expanded blog posts.  Perhaps, he rehearsed the book on his podcast. The author excuses himself from philosophical and theological subjects. He does not address our improbable existence as a major theme, except to affirm it as risky, improbable, and mysterious.  He is at his strongest in the narrative on the current scientific understanding of all that space, starting only about 60 miles from our earth’s surface, and the arrangement of particles, forces, fields, and energies that make up the cosmos.

He is a bit careless with the several meanings of “universe” and the use of “cosmos.” This biggest entity (cosmos or universe) is a big space with lots of mysteries, which mysteries the scientists, experimental and theoretical, have been, and are, reducing incrementally with the help of machines and mathematics.

The book includes interesting endnotes in the same chatty style as the text, an index, and a bibliography.  The Table of Contents is not a helpful guide as the reader starts, but it is understandable when the reading ends.

Quakers: Most Quakers vaguely understand and endorse the current, standard, scientific view of astronomy and physics, but without adjusting their traditional Quaker rituals, language, and teaching guides for Quakers. 

Quakers appear to vaguely endorse science, but Quakers are not attracted to science vocationally.  Quaker Jocelyn Bell of Great Britain and almost Nobel Prize recipient, is the only well-known, current Quaker leader with the background in both astronomy and Quakerism to provide guidance for Quakers and serious parents of Quaker children. These are not easy conversations, but ones for which we are responsible.

This book is a fine read, accessible to adolescents, and helpful resource for coordinators of First Day Schools and parent education.


  • How do Quakers refine their language in talking about God with children in a way that is consistent with the parental view of the reality of the cosmos in which we exist?  
  • How do Quaker parents teach children about the size and mysteries of the cosmos and the human role in it?
  • Who can Quakers look to for spiritual guidance, other than Jocelyn Bell Burnell, in integrating the insights provided by current astronomy and physics and the insights of the Quaker tradition?


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