Skip to main content

The Universe Within – Neil Shubin ***

Having written a book called The Universe Inside You, which uses your body as a way of exploring wider science, I was rather intrigued to come across a book called The Universe Within, which ‘reveals the deep connections between the cosmos and the human body.’
As it happens, any worries about plagiarism were unfounded as this is a very different type of book. Neil Shubin doesn’t really say anything about our bodies, merely observes that the atoms that make them up came from outside and then spends the rest of the book considering the more recent source of those atoms, the Earth (and hence geology/palaeontology) and its impact on different living forms, and in the longer term origins when the atoms were forged in stars.
Along the way, the book lurches from topic to topic – sometimes in what feels a very random fashion, though sometimes making a neat excursion to find out more that is very enjoyable. It’s an episodic book, with some sections far less appealing than others. The bits I really disliked were the parts describing Shubin’s own fossil hunting expeditions, which seemed decidedly self-indulgent. By contrast, he can wax enjoyably lyrical when describing some aspect of the universe.
It’s not a bad book by any means, and many will enjoy it, but I found the way it repeatedly jumps back and forth chronologically with no obvious structure mildly irritating and confusing. Bits of it are superb, but we are in real curate’s egg territory.
Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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…