Friday, 22 June 2007

The Cosmos: A Beginner’s Guide – Adam Hart-Davis and Paul Bader ****

Is it book? Is it a TV show? No, it’s very obviously the book of a TV show – in this case, a BBC series of six parts looking at the way we explore the cosmos, presented by the UK’s one time favourite science presenter before Brian Cox came on the scene, one of a long tradition of eccentrics who have graced the British screen, Adam Hart-Davis. This is a man who thinks nothing of wearing clothes that would only be considered fashionable by a demented boy scout leader. (You may wonder what Mr H-D’s dress sense has to do with the book – his photograph does appear in it rather a lot, and his name is much bigger on the front than co-author Paul Bader’s (see the image) – this is, to some extent, a celebrity propelled vehicle.)
Once you get a big disappointment out of the way, which is down to the way it has been lifted from the TV show, it’s actually quite a good book. The disappointment is that it doesn’t do what it says on the tin. It’s not really about the cosmos, it’s mostly about the machines we use to explore the cosmos – so there’s a lot more, for instance, about satellites and telescopes than there is about dark matter, multiverses or the inner workings of stars. This is probably because of the TV show origins – it’s a lot easier to show our heroes exploring telescopes and space station mock-ups than it is to show ideas about the nature of the universe, which are inevitably rather hands-off. But if you do take it for what it is, there’s some beautiful photography of the equipment and the stars, and it provides real insights into the latest work in telescopes, exploratory satellites and space-based telescopes. While Hart-Davis’s jolly and enthusiastic style isn’t for everyone, it does make for a pleasant reading experience.
One or two quibbles. From the price, the book seems to be aimed at adults, yet a number of the visual design elements in it are irritatingly childish. Occasional diagrams, made to look like photographs of documents have fake coffee cup rings on them, the sort of visual effect I thought went out with the Monty Python books – and mini-biographies are displayed in little “biog file” boxes, presented like something a nine year old would collect in bubblegum wrappers. The “biogs” are also painfully summary, and in at least one case, poorly researched. We are told that Einstein renounced his German citizenship “After Hitler came to power in 1933.” In fact it was nothing to do with Hitler coming to power – it was at age 16 in 1895 that he began the process of giving up his German citizenship, and he became a Swiss citizen in 1901 – so this is not just a tiny slip, it’s monumentally wrong. We also see a rather adolescent approach in the attempts to give context. When describing the debate over whether nebulae were island universes, we are told “In previous years the debate would have been accompanied by a glass of wine. But in America the era of prohibition had just begun, so alcohol was out.” We are left asking “So?”
If you want a basic primer (and it doesn’t claim to be anything else) on how we explore the universe without ever leaving our solar system, and can cope with the style, this is an excellent introduction. It would probably sit best with younger high school students, but in principle could be enjoyed by any age from 10 to 100.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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