The Address Book

Robin McKie in The Observer:

The-Address-Book At the start of each school term, Tim Radford – as so many other pupils have done over the decades – would scribble his name in his exercise book, add his address, and then for good measure put in his hometown, his country, his planet, the solar system, galaxy and finally the universe. It was “an obsessive little ritual”, says Radford, but it was an important one. “It might have been my first independent search for answers to questions posed consciously and unconsciously by everyone in every culture. Where did I come from and where am I going?”

Radford, one of the Guardian's most experienced writers, has now returned to the concept of the extended address to establish where he stands in the universe today and, through his story, help us understand our own positions in the cosmos. As he notes: “Place is a powerful part of identity.”

Hence we are taken on an autobiographical trail of Radford's life: the houses he lived in, the towns and cities he settled in, and the countries that were his homelands – New Zealand and Britain. We are given a geological history of Hastings, where Radford eventually settled, and provided with an outline of the creation of the British Isles – “a 500-million-year accident of geophysics, the story of how Scotland crossed an ancient, vanished ocean and attached itself to what would become England”.

Each chapter peels back a different layer of the complexities of Homo sapiens, creatures with close-knit private histories, but who also live in a frighteningly large universe, on a world created out of the rubble of the explosive big bang birth of the cosmos 13.7 billion years ago. The trick for Radford is to explain not just the immediate and personal but outline the cosmic and the significant in this grand picture. And to a considerable degree, he is successful. Radford is an adroit writer and, as a former literary editor as well as ex-science editor, he comes very well-prepared for the task.

More here.