Monday, 5 July 2010

The Big Questions: The Universe – Stuart Clark ***

The idea of this rather stylish series of books – hardbacks with no dustcover, but with a ‘hold it closed’ elastic band, like a pocket notebook – is to present a series of key questions about an area of philosophy or science and provide answers to them. Like its companion in the series The Big Questions: Physics, this title takes on the whole of a major topic, cosmology, providing a take on the subject that doesn’t go hugely into the people and history of science, sticking instead to the facts of the matter.
This doesn’t make for great popular science. The whole point of popular science is to put science into context, to talk about how the discoveries were made (and by whom) as well as the science itself. Otherwise, what you end up with is a textbook. In this case it is a very readable introductory textbook – a wide range of topics on the nature of the universe are well covered and presented in a non-technical manner – but it still lacks that fascination that good popular science brings to the topics. Thankfully Stuart Clark does bring a few details into the areas he covers, but this is done quite inconsistently. So, for instance, we get a nice little vignette on Frank Drake and SETI, but very little on major individuals from Newton through Hubble to Einstein who are hugely involved in the story of the discoveries listed.
Generally speaking the broad spectrum of cosmology, with a fair amount of astronomy and astrophysics (with a smattering of related physics) is well covered. What I found slightly odd, though, was the inconsistency in revealing what is and isn’t speculative. So, for instance, we are offered an alternative to dark matter to explain its impact, but the big bang theory is stated as being ‘definitively proved’ – which is just not true. It is by far and away the best supported theory, but it has its problems, and there are alternatives that fit the data. The way the book is divided into questions like ‘How old is the universe?’ and ‘How did the universe form?’ means that the information is structured rather oddly. The first of these questions comes a good way before the other (with ‘What is a black hole?’ amongst those in between) which means Clark has to explain the age of the universe, our best ideas of which are wholly dependent on the model of how the universe was formed, without covering the latter.
As with the Physics book my biggest problem here is knowing who this book is aimed at. It’s too lightweight for students of the subject, but hasn’t enough context for popular science. It’s entirely readable, but rarely captures the imagination. It’s perfectly likeable, has good information and is well presented – it is, in principle, a very useful summary – but I’m not sure who it will appeal to.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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