Skip to main content

50 Ideas you Really need to Know: Universe – Joanne Baker **

This is another title in the same series as 50 Physics Ideas you Really need to Know, but ’50 Universe ideas you need to Know’ doesn’t really work as a title, so they’ve had to fiddle around with it. Like its predecessor, it’s a struggle to know exactly what this book is. It’s certainly not an end-to-end read, comprising of 50 short items. In fact it’s more like a children’s book in format, down to having cutesy little quotes and useless summaries for each item: ‘the universe’s warm bath of photons’ is one of the better ones, for the cosmic background radiation, but they are more style than substance.
On the good side, it’s approachably written and covers all the major topics you would expect in a book about cosmology (plus rather a lot of physics to pad it out to 50). It also looks rather handsome, in a series format that seems to be based on a wooden framed slate, for some reason. However there are some significant limitations.
The biggest overall one is that it is smug science. Dealing with the most speculative of sciences, it is written as if it is dealing with concrete fact. About the only place any doubt is inserted is when dealing with string theory (not exactly cosmology), but mostly, whether dealing with the big bang or dark matter, there is no suggestion that there are any sensible alternatives, or that the means of investigating all this are so indirect that there is plenty of room for error. Most grown up popular science will explain the realities rather than the fictional solid truth – in this respect, as in the format, it is more like a children’s book than anything for grownups.
The other issue is that it contains a fair number of errors. According to the blurb, the author studied physics at Cambridge and has a PhD in Astrophysics – but it doesn’t always show. The very first item on planets glibly states the ‘rules’ of what defines a planet without noticing that several of the traditional planets don’t actually succeed in the ‘clearing the neighbourhood’ rule. Joanne Baker also fails to point out when dealing with the ancients that their definition of ‘planet’ included the sun and moon. A more basic error comes up in the section on black holes. We are told about escape velocity that ‘a rocket needs to attain this speed if it is to escape the Earth.’ No it doesn’t, and this is basic physics. A rock needs to attain that speed, but a rocket can escape the Earth at 1 metre per hour if it wants to, because it is under power. This really isn’t good enough, and it’s not the only example.
Overall, then, it is hard to be entirely positive about this book. It is well presented, and covers all the basics (if with some errors), but it doesn’t read like an adult popular science book.
Hardback:  
Review by Peter Spitz

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…