Skip to main content

Einstein’s Telescope – Evalyn Gates ***

Subtitled ‘the hunt for dark matter and dark energy in the universe’, this is a book that doesn’t fulfil its promise. It does have a quite reasonable explanation of general relativity, but that’s just a sideline for the main topic of dark matter and dark energy, and the problem here, I think, is that it is, as yet, a failed hunt. It’s a bit like a true crime book about a murder that was never solved – tantalizing, but never delivering.
Because we don’t know what dark matter and dark energy are, it’s a difficult one to carry forward. This isn’t helped by a certain fixedness of viewpoint. It would have been more interesting if Evalyn Gates had opened up some of the many uncertainties in cosmology, but she presents the Big Bang as effectively certain, telling us ‘[the cosmic microwave background] effectively nailed the case for the Big Bang model’, when it equally supports pretty well all the main alternative theories, and though she briefly opens up the MOND ideas of variations in gravity being responsible for the effect seen as dark matter, then dismisses this in rather summary fashion.
It’s a shame she didn’t spend more time on the alternatives, because this means she is left repeating herself over and over again on the amazing way dark matter and dark energy make up so much of the universe. Take out all this repetition and what’s left verges on an extended magazine article. I personally was not overwhelmed by her style, either. In an attempt to be populist, Gates uses some weak metaphors. For example, she likens the slowing down of light when passing through a material to the slowing down of a politician as she passes through a crowd, glad-handing the people – which I just found embarrassing.
And a final moan – surely it’s time for more imagination in book titles. We’ve had Einstein’s Moon, Einstein’s Refrigerator (two different books of the same name), Einstein’s Heroes, Einstein’s Mistakes, now Einstein’s Telescope… Einstein’s had enough.
A lost cause? No. Not entirely. If you specifically want a good summary of the search for dark matter and the effect of gravitational lensing particularly, plus one of the better attempts I’ve seen at explaining general relativity, it’s hard to criticize. But it’s really only for those with a particular interest in the subject, not for the casual reader.
Paperback:  
Review by Peter Spitz

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…