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

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…