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The Big Picture

On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself
Narrated by: Sean Carroll
Length: 17 hrs and 22 mins
4.8 out of 5 stars (39 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

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 the Higgs boson 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, listeners 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 be listened to alongside the works of Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, Daniel Dennett, and E. O. Wilson for years to come. 

PLEASE NOTE: When you purchase this title, the accompanying PDF will be available in your Audible Library along with the audio.

©2016 Sean Carroll (P)2016 Penguin Audio

Critic Reviews

Included on Brain Picking’s “The Greatest Science Books of 2016” List and included on NPR Science Friday’s “The Best Science Books of 2016” List

“Weaving the threads of astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and philosophy into a seamless narrative tapestry, Sean Carroll enthralls us with what we’ve figured out in the universe and humbles us with what we don’t yet understand. Yet in the end, it’s the meaning of it all that feeds your soul of curiosity.” (Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey)

“With profound intelligence and lucid, unpretentious language, Sean Carroll beautifully articulates the worldview suggested by contemporary naturalism. Thorny issues like free will, the direction of time, and the source of morality are clarified with elegance and insight. The Big Picture shows how the scientific worldview enriches our understanding of the universe and ourselves. A reliable account of our knowledge of the universe, it is also a serene meditation on our need for meaning. This is a book that should be read by everybody.” (Carlo Rovelli, author of Seven Brief Lessons on Physics)

"Vivid...impressive....Splendidly informative." (The New York Times Book Review)

What listeners say about The Big Picture

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Sean's done it again 😁

I really loved this book, it broke the world down into many of its different parts and explained them all well, including how they fit together. Sean brought up many popular viewpoints, not just his own and presented them all fairly which I appreciate. Lastly the wording and explanations of the concepts mentioned werr great, great enough that me, a high school student who hasn't even had his first calculus class yet can learn more about what I'm interested in.

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Wonderful, simply wonderful

I loved it, my listening is restricted to garden work on weekends, having Sean as my intellectual partner in these mundane activities has turned a chore into a delicious delight. Thank you Sean. It's like gardening with Sagan.

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Great listen!

Deeper than expected! Great information covered and explained by Sean Carroll through science, history and the human mind. Very enjoyable.

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  • Chris Akers
  • 10-06-2016

Keeping this on REPEAT for months to come

Any additional comments?

I'm just going to cut to the chase and say that this is my favorite audiobook purchase so far out of the 98 I still have in my library. I phrase it that way as I am very prone to returning audiobooks after their first chapter (thanks, Audible!) if I find the narration unconvincing, too rigid, or just unpleasant in any way. I would rather wait and read it myself than suffer through anything less than a great performance in the narration department.Due to that reason, I gravitate to spending my credits on Great Courses as the lecture style of delivery is more engaging for me. My next favorite would be non-fiction read by the author, from an author that can read well. After that comes everything else. I would put this audiobook in a class by itself. Non-fiction read by the author in a manner every bit as engaging as the best lecturer, but without any asides or distractions and with the luxury of syncing with the written text for reference and reading later.Now that said, the book itself is probably the best attempt to date at making accessible to its audience an understanding of current Cosmology and Theoretical Physics and how they sync with Life Sciences to form a framework for seeing "The Big Picture." No small undertaking, but not since Carl Sagan's original Cosmos series and book has somebody created such a satisfying fusion. It should be noted, however, that this book wades in a bit further to the scientific details than Sagan's popularization did, but Carroll is such a generous guide that unless you aren't interested in learning some new terminology and concepts, it will be an enjoyable swim in deeper waters.

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  • Beatrice
  • 23-06-2018

Vaguely Antitheist

I felt annoyed more than anything that he repeatedly says (with certainly), there is nothing mystical in the universe, there is no spirit, and no soul. Everything we have measured but haven't explained yet is mystical, you can't prove a negative, and I don't see how the rest of the story is in conflict with there being a soul. It feels almost like being an atheist is a prerequisite to enjoying the rest of the book. Why was it included at all? You can believe what you want, but I have little patience for people injecting their (however logical) *beliefs* into a book on *science* while giving no time to differing opinions.

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  • serine
  • 12-05-2016

ABSOLUTE MUST READ!

After having a countdown for this book, which spanned months, I woke up at 5 am on May 10th and thought, "It's finally here!" I opened my Audible library and it was better than Christmas. In the quiet of the morning, I began to listen to this deeply philosophical book and immediately fell in love with it. It felt like a Poetic Naturalist's version of Christmas- material gifts replaced by the gift of trying to understand the nature of our vast universe and the world in which we live.

Those who have wanted to read Sean Carroll but didn't want to wade through the science will be happy with this book. In the spirit of Alexander von Humboldt, Carroll tucks much of the complex science away in an appendix for those who would like more detail. But, that doesn't mean this book is light on the science. To the contrary, Carroll, as usual, takes some of the most complex issues science has to offer, and packages them in a form that even people with little or no scientific background can understand. In fact, this book in particular is aimed at those who might have little education in the sciences and and even less education about heuristics. It welcomes everyone to join in a thoughtful conversation about understanding what we know about our world and the wider universe. Does it have a purpose? Does its design imply any type of creator? Instead of insulting those who say that it does (I am guilty of this myself), Carroll provided a real way to put our beliefs to the test. He was very willing to consider the views of those who believe in God and provide a detailed method, which is both kind and built on logic, that can help us figure out whether a belief is true.

If the preceding paragraph suggests to you that those with extensive education in the sciences (including cognitive science) will be bored or find nothing new, then I have represented the book poorly. Even people whose undergrad and grad career consisted of many of the following courses will find new ways of thinking about that information and connecting it to the Big Picture.

Samples of related course material:

Intro to Cognitive Science (including Kahneman's heuristics)
Cognitive Neuroscience
Biochem (including chemiosmosis)
Evolution (including environmental modification of genes)
Origin of life research (including Martin, Russell, and Lane's work on bioenergetics and others working on RNA world)
Philosophy of Mind

Carroll opened the door for *everyone* to think about and discuss what evidence we would need for any belief to be validated. Instead of dismissing ideas of belief outright, Carroll employs a very gentle, yet fiercely logical style of problem solving. The result was powerful and reminded me of the deep humility and unfailing logic with which Darwin wrote his many books, including his autobiography.

Prior to this book, if anyone had asked me if I wanted to read yet another book on creationism vs. science or the hard problem of consciousness (involving Chalmers unrealistic and pseudoscientific zombies), the answer would have been a resounding, "NO!" I feel as if too much of my thinking time has been wasted by these concepts that serve only to anchor our progress. I want to push past all of that. I want to never again allow that type of scientific sabotage to ruin the progress I might make in understanding the universe in a real and more complete way than my current view allows. Often reading about the efforts of those who wage war on evidence based knowledge leaves me frustrated, often wishing I could get that time back. That was not the case with this book. The whole time, even though I was reading things I thought I was tired of reading, my neurons were flooding my brain with wonderful dopamine bursts. Reflexive "Wows" kept reverberating from my brain. The book fits into the category "MINDGASM!"

In a book, which includes such topics as:

how we know what we know
the forces that govern the universe
properties of elements in relation to other elements
quantum mechanics
emergence and complexity
how we gather and evaluate scientific evidence

Carroll, in his usual relatable fashion, seamlessly included discussions about today's relevant issues in society such as transgender rights, marriage equality. I recall reading E.O. Wilson's book Social Conquest Of Earth and feeling somewhat confused about the organization of the book. He kept social issues separate throughout the book and then bombarded the reader with a litany of important social issues. I love both Wilson and his book, but the social issues didn't fit and felt as if they should be in another book. Carroll's humorous (yet serious) approach when discussing such issues makes me feel as if I am reading a 20 something university student with his finger on the pulse of the upcoming generations, while at other times, when he is discussing concepts that take a long time to learn, I feel as if I am reading a book written by a scientifically minded Zarathustra. In a crazy way, this writing style really works.

Parts One, Two, and Three (the first half of the book) were basically an excellent summary of and entire 4 year experience as a major in Cognitive Science. After introducing such concepts as understanding cause and effect, understanding how things move and how momentum is conserved, and understanding how we come to adopt our belief systems, Carroll examined the many heuristics we employ when trying to understand how we know what we know. To figure this out, he introduced a sort of "best of" collection of thinkers. Marrying Cog Sci 101 (with a strong emphasis on Baysian reasoning) with Epistemology and Philosophy 101, he tried to understand what thinkers such as Descartes and Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, and Kahneman thought about the nature of reality. The main questions scholars have been asking are, "How can I know what I know? How can I know what exists? How can I know if my beliefs reflect reality?" A take home point from Section Two is that people are all entitled to have their own prior beliefs. However, they are not entitled to have their own likelihood. There is an objective likelihood to be discovered, and it takes solid reasoning, and not tightly held belief, to make that discovery. **** see note at end.

While discussing heuristics, Carroll gave a shout out to one of my favorite books -- Mistakes Were Made, but Not by Me. I love that book and am often disappointed that not too many people I have talked to seem to appreciate it in the way I do. I love that it got the recognition it deserved. Many books like it are sort of self-help oriented and veer too far from the science. Many authors fail to question if they are using the very heuristics they are writing about. Still others fail to question the methods to the studies they choose to include, brining down the overall quality of the book. But, Tavris and Aronson did much better than most avoiding these pitfalls. They deserved some recognition, not from the self-help crowd, but rather from a scientists who is celebrated for his keen logic.

In Part 4, Carroll related a humorous story about ending up on a plane, seated next to origin of life researcher Mike Russel. That was a great lead in to explaining Darwinian evolution, cellular formation, emergence, complexity (his complexity research sounds great! I am definitely going to read everything I can get my hand on concerning that), and ATP synthase (my very favorite protein channel!). If you are a bit fuzzy about what Free Energy is, this section will clear that up and relate it to exactly how your very own body works. (What a delicious section. I was too excited to see what came next. So I did not stop to listen again or take notes on this section. As soon as I am done writing this review, I am going to listen to this entire section again.)

Theodosius Dobzhansky said, “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”. Thanks to scientists such as Sean Carroll, Mike Russell, Jeremy England, and others bridging the gap between living and non living systems, it will soon be said that Nothing in Biology or the larger universe Makes Sense Except in the Light of Thermodynamics. If you want the best possible summary of how thermodynamics fits into the story of living systems (including how those systems likely came into being and how they evolved), then you will love this section.

In Part Five, Carroll took on the philosophy of mind debate. You may have taken courses or read extensively about The Chinese Room, Mary, What it's Like to Be a Bat, Eliminative Materialism, and The Hard Problem. Even if you are extremely familiar with all of this, I would recommend reading Carroll's summary. Wow! I was engaged in a way that surprised me. He breathed new life into these debates. I was a tiny bit sad that he left out Andy Clark's work (especially in relation to Chalmers), but considering this book was more than 17 hours long (Audible), I understand that he didn't have time for everything. It's just that Clark's work (along with the Churchland's work) is what made Philosophy of Mind so great for me.

Carroll ended the book with what I can only say was a beautiful essay I didn't know I needed to read. If you are unfamiliar with the Is vs Ought problem, you can find out in this section what it is and why should you care. If you are well familiar with this question, you will enjoy the discussion provided on Carroll about morality. Deeply satisfying! A+! He ended on a more personal note than any thing I have read by him to date. It was truly a lovely book, from start to finish.

I think Carroll will be remembered along side of Copernicus and Darwin for providing us with gentle but clear evidence that we are not special. Far from being a depressing nihilistic view of the world and universe, Carroll showed his reader (even if you read with your ears) how reality is actually more special than any false belief about being special. Understanding can be the deepest religion of all (idk if Carroll would put it quite like that, but it's my takeaway message).



****I was going to include in this review a bit about Sean Carroll's "planet v black hole belief system," but I posted about it on Facebook and butchered what was an excellent analogy. I can only say that you need to read it for yourself. If you get the analogy, you will forever ask yourself, "Am I being a black hole right now? "Am I following the evidence or am I fooling myself and holding tight to heuristically driven fallacies?" I can see a new viral way of thinking springing from this analogy -- e.g. insults or memes that include the statement, "Stop being such a black hole!"

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  • Desert Reader
  • 26-10-2018

Boringly Anthropocentric

Ultimately, despite what appear to be his best efforts to deny it, the author's really "big idea" is to place one species, Homo sapiens, at the center of the known universe--both from a scientific and "spiritual" perspective. With the expressed view that "The Universe Is in Our Hands", the author aggrandizes Homo sapiens well beyond reason (or good science), seemingly unaware of (or uninformed about) the vast realms of intelligent, aware, conscious life forms that his precious humans continue to deliberately and unnecessarily obliterate from the face of this planet to serve the wants of the "immensely precious" humans. The author presents himself as a staunch guardian of The Human Empire, apparently conditioned to ignore the fact that the millions of other species, for millennia at the ruthless mercy of his favored species, also evolved naturally over billions of years in the same universe that is evolving from a state of low to high entropy. Yet, he chooses just one species from the millions to be his chosen miracle.

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  • Bobby Rariden
  • 14-06-2018

No philosophical understanding

Within 10 minutes the author claimed that an understanding of the physical world will actively disprove the existence of a metaphysical soul. The claim shows that the author has zero understanding of the philosophy of religion or really critical thinking. Sad. No one can disprove the existence of non detectable non physical things through physical means. Zero credibility

9 people found this helpful

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  • Pulchritudinous Absquatulator
  • 18-05-2016

Excellent

We don't have to know everything to know enough to rule out a few things! And Thou shall not extrapolate beyond the domain of applicability! I'm a big fan and this did not disappoint.

17 people found this helpful

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  • Trav
  • 09-10-2016

Scientific discussion of theism

Not what I was after in a physics book. I think I should have paid more careful attention to the publisher’s description; namely the portion that mentions “deepest personal questions” and “give [our lives] meaning.”
So, for the benefit of anyone else who might breeze over the publisher’s description, let me be explicit in my statement here: THIS BOOK PRIMARILY DISCUSSES SCIENCE, RELIGION/SPIRITUALITY, & ATHEISM VS THEISM (and the scientific thought process applied to analysis of the subject).
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This IS the book for you, if you are interested in listening to a very detailed and extensive discussion of the application of the scientific method/analysis (e.g. objective evidence-based discussion centered on the predictive power of various religious/metaphysical beliefs). This is also the book for you if you are interested in a rather enlightening look into how we can find meaning for our lives in a universe of physical laws and chance. While a somewhat dry piece of literature, Carroll does an excellent job with a logical progression of evidence and thought exercises to bring to light both of the fairly vast and complex subjects.
Frankly, when I pick up a layman’s physics book, I’m not looking for a discussion of philosophy. I’m interested in the scientific aspect of a scientific subject. I’ll keep the theology shelved separately, thank you very much.
The production quality was excellent, and the narration by the author was surprisingly good (though occasionally a bit overly-enunciated or slower than I like).
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That being said, my relatively low rating for this book is ENTIRELY SUBJECTIVE and based largely on my disappointment in the subject matter covered. I would give it 1-2 stars simply because it's not what I want from a physics book. I gave it 3, because I have to admit that it does a good job of what it aims to do (not great, but good). What I see as a negative may be a great positive for someone else in this case. So, I’d say, as long as you’re aware of what you’re getting into, this may be the perfect book for you.
P.S. The PDF IS AVAILABLE to download, so you can see the figures referenced.

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  • João Paulo
  • 06-05-2019

Not very captivating

The content is good, but it is not an easy or very captivating reading. I had to struggle to finish it.

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  • Joshua Madero
  • 11-12-2016

Excellent book

It is simple to understand and provides very meaningful explanations. However, the narrator refers to the PDF that I have not been able to find on the app. That's something Audible needs to improve.

10 people found this helpful

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 27-08-2016

Everyone will learn from this book

This book includes up to date thinking on many topics in science and philosophy, in the context of a worldview called "poetic naturalism". It, together with the author's Teaching Company course on the mystery of time, taught me things I have not found anywhere else. His ideas and beliefs are extremely well organized and presented. Sean Carroll is also the best author-narrator I have listened to.
My question for Dr Carroll is what is the naturalist's explanation for the origin of the human capacity to use rational thought and mathematics to understand and study the nature of reality? Is this capacity merely another emergent property driven by natural selection?

4 people found this helpful

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 06-04-2020

More about Philosophy and its history than science

I hoped to learn more about interesting scientific phenomenons and how they relate to each other, but ended up hearing about history of philosophy, religion vs science and figures of science and philosophy.

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  • gotobann
  • 18-07-2019

drifts into God Questions too much

Sean builds concepts and terms in a great easy style. He is patient and communicates the most complex concepts while aware of each learner's struggle to build their own internal scrapbook of ideas. Easy to listen to but strays into science versus religion a bit too much.jm

5 people found this helpful