Monday, 28 February 2011

How Old is the Universe? – David A. Weintraub ***

There’s an old test often applied by agents when presented with a book idea. Is it just a magazine article? It might seem terrible to suggest that your hard-worked on book is really just an article – but the point is that there are some stories that people want to read about in depth and others where a magazine article is really all that you can make of it and keep readers with you.
The story of putting an age to the universe certainly has plenty of twists and turns along the way, so there’s is no suggestion that this just a magazine article of a story – yet we have to face up to the fact that most books on cosmology will cover this in a chapter, so David Weintraub really does have to work hard to keep us going through a chunky 363 page volume. Does he succeed? Yes and no.
The first part of the book is probably the best. Here we are working up gradually, putting together the clues that will give us a best indication for an age of the universe, starting with fixing a timescale for the solar system on the logical assumption that it can hardly be older than the universe. Then we go through the ages of other stars, getting older, heading back, and finally to the whole expanding universe with all the joy of dark matter.
There is certainly a lot of matter here – not just the dark stuff. Weintraub pours in the information relentlessly. Once I had got into the middle, age of the stars, section, I began to feel ‘This is too much.’ Writing popular science is a delicate art. You have to balance representing the facts and theories as accurately as possible with making the material accessible and, well, enjoyable. I’m afraid that by the time I was about half way through the book it felt like too much hard work.
Just one example. There is a whole chapter on how to read a Hertzsprung-Russell diagram (the archetypal astrophysics plot showing how the different stars vary in temperature against brightness and providing a ‘main sequence’ that describes the evolution of many stars, plus a whole range of other good things). I did an astrophysics option in my undergraduate degree and we spent 5 minutes on the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram. Here we’ve got a whole chapter. I’m not doing down the importance of the diagram – it’s a critical tool – but just emphasising how much detail the author takes us into.
Overall this is a book I would highly recommend if you are an amateur astronomer who really wants to get into the nitty gritty of the hardcore side of the subject, or someone on an undergraduate course. But I can’t really recommend it for the general reader who wants to know more about the story of how we can state that the universe is very probably around 13.7 billion years old.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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