Skip to main content

Welcome to the Universe - Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael Strauss, Richard Gott ***

One of the first things a writer is encouraged to do is to be aware of his or her audience. I think it's interesting that this book, like many written by physicists, mostly has comments on the back from physicists, because the book is written as if they were the audience. Not as serious reading - more the equivalent of a heavy literary fiction reader indulging in a bit of Agatha Christie for light relief. The trouble is that this isn't the audience it's supposed to be for. To make things worse, each of the three authors pitches their writing differently.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is his usual ebullient self, using a style that mixes the shouty with a touch of condescension. However, his content is more detailed than usual with a strong smattering of equations - enough that this sometimes feels like an introductory textbook. The opening has something of the manic 'space is really big' approach of the Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but then settles down to a quick rattle through '3,000 years of astronomy.' However, to ensure it's not too interesting he also tells us that he is not going to include details of people and discoveries. To be fair, this may be because Tyson has been slated in the past for poor history of science.

Despite the style, Tyson manages a reasonable balance of general observation and introduction of physical concepts. There is one odd chapter, about the demotion of Pluto from a planet which doesn't fit with the rest at all - it seems a bit of a vanity project for Tyson - but the rest fits together quite well. We've already come across Michael Strauss in this first section on 'stars, planets and life' as he interposes a few chapters amongst Tyson's, but he comes into his own in the second, shortest section, 'galaxies'. This is probably the least technical section of the book, being mostly descriptive. In a dry, but generally accessible fashion, Strauss takes us from the interstellar medium to quasars and supermassive black holes.

Finally we get to Richard Gott's section, 'Einstein and the Universe'. This the heaviest section of a literally heavy book (1.35 kilograms - get the Kindle version), but in some ways the most satisfying. Gott is not a great explainer, and does perpetuate the myth that Wheeler named the black hole (a common enough misunderstanding 10 years ago, but generally done away with by now), however he gives us a brisk introduction to special and general relativity (John Gribbin would not be impressed that he refers to 'the theory of special relativity'), going on to the implications of these theories for astrophysics and even time travel. Reading Gott is hard work, but it is rewarding. However, this section feels like a completely different book - the first two parts very much fit with the subtitle, 'an astrophysical tour', but the final part is very much physics with astrophysical applications.

Overall, there's a lot going on in this book, with more equations and working out than I've ever seen in a book from a mainstream publisher aimed at a popular science audience. I think it will work well for a segment of that audience - high school students who are already specialising in physics, and regular popular science physics readers who want more depth (provided they can get through the Tyson section). But the book's inconsistent approach and heavy content won't be for everyone.


Hardback:  

Kindle 

Review by Brian Clegg

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 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…

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.'…