Take it from the top

Cosmic Wonder: Our Place in the Epic Story of the Universe
by Nathan Hellner-Mestelman

Montreal: Linda Leith Publishing, 2024
$24.95  /  9781773901596

Reviewed by Jeffrey Stychin


Why are we here? What does it mean to live? How about things that are unexplained? What are the multitude of unfathomable origins of our existence and the origins of reality and our universe? Nathan Hellner-Mestelman takes us on a riveting, existential journey through what humans believe is the beginning of the cosmos and evolution of life itself.

Humanity, which for most of our history seemed so special and superior to all other life forms, turned out to have the same soup origin as every one of the 8.7 million other species on our planet. . . In other words, our atoms have the same backstory as the rest of the solar system, smashed together in the core of a star as it blew itself to pieces.

I have such fond memories with my friend John. We would often sit at night on the front steps to his dad’s place, drinking pineapple juice and eating cheese quesadillas, pondering life and possible alien life while looking into the night sky, in all its beauty, the stars etched across blackness, discussing our miniscule place in the universe, and contemplating: why us. All the while we would contend with conflicting, grandiose ideas we couldn’t comprehend.

Victoria-based Nathan Hellner-Mestelman does outreach work with the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. He has published articles in SkyNews and is an award-winning filmmaker. He’s 16 years old and is well on his way to his goal of becoming a science ambassador for spaceflight and astronomy.

I find this childlike wonder echoed in Hellner-Mestelman’s work. He showcases such awe and intrigue into humanity, which is extremely charming, all while explaining scientific fact with impressive tact.

Our Milky Way galaxy is around 100,000 light-years across, which is 25,000 times larger than the distance between the Sun and Proxima Centauri. . . It takes millennia for light to cross even a small part of our galaxy, and that leads to something really unsettling: most of the galaxy has no idea we exist.

I doubt we will ever figure out where we come from or why, and as Hellner-Mestelman describes, we are such a small part of the universe. Even though we all may feel insignificant sometimes, there is still hope.

If you’re ever worried about the shortness of human life, take a moment to think about all the particles of light you emitted and reflected. You don’t need to think about it, because you’ve been shining light into the universe since the day you were born. All those waves of light are still out there. . . Your image will be a bubble of light and radiation that will drift into space for an infinite amount of time!

Where do you think we came from? ‘Earth’ is a no-brainer, but what about before all that? Hellner-Mestelman goes into such descriptive detail about our origin story, how things became and what became before. I cannot do this book justice in the details, and while exhaustive, it is so intriguing and engaging.

Around four billion years ago, the forecast wasn’t rain, snow or clouds – it was rocks. An era of the solar system’s history known as the Late Heavy Bombardment was happening. Every day, millions of meteors slammed into the Earth, pockmarking it with craters and turning a quarter of its surface into lava.

[Editor’s Note: Cosmic Wonder features artwork by Nathan Hellner-Mestelman that heightens the though-provoking facts presented about our universe. See below for more examples.]

There could be some competing facts for those religious types out there, but none of this should matter because the science Hellner-Mestelman puts forth is really awesome and wonderfully complex. I like to think that we’re all connected together, everything living and non-living and our energies merge and transfer and permeate all things forever. Wouldn’t that be extremely beautiful, even if there is no reason or beginning or end to any of it?

You’re a traveller. Everyone on this planet – even those who hate vacations – is a cosmic traveller trekking across the cosmos for billions of years. . . The hydrogen atoms in your body are originals; they came together about 380,000 years after the Big Bang, and they haven’t changed since.

Illustration by Nathan Hellner-Mestelman

I definitely felt a huge nostalgic pull while reading this book and was able to excitedly peruse the pages and small illustrations with a fascination that has seemingly lied dormant for many, many years.

Let’s take a moment to reflect. Who exactly are you? You’re a collection of cells working together. You only exist at this point in the Earth’s history because the arrangement of cells you have are better at surviving and reproducing than most of the 5,000,000,000 to 50,000,000,000 other species that have gone extinct over the Earth’s entire history. As mentioned in the 1997 book The Biology of Rarity, over 99% of all the species that have ever existed are now extinct. Yet here you are.

Realizing just how lucky we are to be alive is something special. The older I get, the more I appreciate the fact that I exist and am able to interact with others and experience my life. It can be extremely challenging, disheartening, and uninspired, but it can also be the complete opposite. I feel like this book, although it can elicit existential thought and wavering perceptions, it can also ground you, pull you into your own being, awaken curiosity, and cement your inner connectedness to all things. It has helped me realize just how insignificant life is, but also how complex, beautiful, and special it is all at the same time. I’m not sure words can really conjure the correct correlation, but I suggest you give this work a read and sincerely consider what Hellner-Mestelman is presenting. It will change you for the better.

The human species is a small part of an amazing and beautiful story. It’s the story of the evolution of life, the universe’s explosive origin and freezing death, from the smallest particles to the biggest galaxies. At the present moment, we’re just a footnote in that story. We might not always be, depending on how far we go, but for now, we really are a cosmic speck.

Illustration by Nathan Hellner-Mestelman


Jeffrey Stychin

Jeffrey Stychin  studied verse and poetry through music and art. He began writing as a means of catharsis and as a way to communicate with himself and others. A Vancouver barber by day, a poet by night, he currently resides with his thoughts and dreams in a quiet place full of trees. Editor’s note: Jeffrey Stychin has also reviewed books by Lisa Hartley, Colin Upton, Darren Groth, Earle Peach, Sonja Ahlers, and Cole Pauls for The British Columbia Review.


The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-25: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an online book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

One comment on “Take it from the top

  1. Your review of Cosmic Wonder is delightfully understandable. It makes me want to read this book. It makes me feel this enthusiastic and sincere young scientist and author is at the beginning of a wonderful career.
    I am happy to know that Nathan Hellner-Mestelman has expressed the wonder and magic of our dear life on Mother Earth. We are one.

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