Skip to main content

The Cosmic Verses – James Muirden ****

To be honest, the thought of a science book entirely in rhyme filled me with dread – it seemed like a cross breed between William McGonagall and John Gribbin, a terrifying thought. In practice the reality is much better. The Cosmic Verses is a charming read in which James Muirden manages to pack a surprisingly broad view of the history of our ideas on the universe into verse form. The style is a loose rhyming structure, though occasionally he has a little section in a different form, such as limerick. There are also short side notes where a point needs a little more explanation – where these are more than a couple of words, they too rhyme.
The book is largely chronological, only having major hiccups by ignoring the timing of the Judeo-Christian inputs to ideas on creation and slotting them in to later interpretations, and in a decidedly unbalanced portrayal of religious impact on science that conveniently forgets, for example, who was responsible for the final destruction of the library at Alexandria. Muirden is also a little harsh on medieval science, which had more ideas about (for instance) the shape and size of the universe than he represents, although he does brings out some partially forgotten names like Grosseteste.
Wisely, Muirden makes strong use of personalities along the way. There are the expected figures like Copernicus and Kepler, but it’s good to see him bringing in other, perhaps less known, individuals like Annie Jump Cannon and Henrietta Swan Leavitt, whose undoubted contribution to scaling the universe is sometimes forgotten. Amazingly, and it’s a real mark of just how good Muirden is, some of the text explains the science better than any other book I’ve come across. For instance, Muirden’s explanation of Ole Romer’s method for calculating the speed of light is the best I’ve seen.
If I have a moan it’s the gratuitous use of Stephen Hawking who only seems to be in there for the sake of mentioning him – and if you really want to be picky, Muirden is over-dismissive of Fred Hoyle and the steady state theory: “He called his scheme the Steady State… support for it was never great.” This is something of a misrepresentation: there was real uncertainty between big bang and steady state for years, and for a period of time the evidence seemed if anything to favour the latter.
This is a lovely little book – it doesn’t take too long to read, the verse is charming, and the content is surprisingly thorough. As a portrait of the universe, I have suffered many worse…
Paperback:  
Review by Jo Reed

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Conjuring the Universe - Peter Atkins *****

It's rare that I'd use the term 'tour de force' when describing a popular science book, but it sprang to mind when I read Conjuring the Universe. It's not that the book's without flaws, but it does something truly original in a delightful way. What's more, the very British Peter Atkins hasn't fallen into the trap that particularly seems to influence US scientists when writing science books for the public of assuming that more is better. Instead of being an unwieldy brick of a book, this is a compact 168 pages that delivers splendidly on the question of where the natural laws came from.

The most obvious comparison is Richard Feynman's (equally compact) The Character of Physical Law - but despite being a great fan of Feynman's, this is the better book. Atkins begins by envisaging a universe emerging from absolutely nothing. While admitting he can't explain how that happened, his newly created universe still bears many resemblances to  nothing a…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Big Bang (Ladybird Expert) - Marcus Chown ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Marcus Chown does a remarkable job at packing in information on the big bang, given only around 25 sides of small format paper to work with. He gives us the concepts, plenty about the cosmic microwave background, plus the likes of dark energy, dark matter, inflation and the multiverse. To be honest, the illustrations were largely pointless, apart from maintaining the format, and it might have been better to have had more text - but I felt …