Skip to main content

Ripples in Spacetime - Govert Schilling ***

The only example of Govert Schilling's work I'd come across was his co-authorship of the quirky but ultimately unsatisfying Tweeting the Universe, so it was interesting to see a 'proper' book by him on the timely topic of gravitational waves.

I struggled a little with his writing style - it's very jerky, jumping from one topic to another in a kind of popular science stream of consciousness, but once I got used to it, there is no doubt that he gives a thorough non-technical picture not only of gravitational waves themselves, but all kinds of background material from Einstein's biography to aspects of general relativity that really don't have much to do with gravitational waves. In a sense this a curse of the topic - because gravitational wave astronomy is so new (at the time of writing fewer than 4 confirmed observations) there's a limit to how much there is to write about.

What Schilling does well is the science explanation. His description of gravitational waves themselves is the best I've seen anywhere, and he gives us plenty of information on the process that led to LIGO (the observatories that have made the discoveries). He's also good on the way the availability of gravitational wave data has the potential to expand the abilities of astronomers.

Less satisfactory is the history of science. I know popular science author John Gribbin would be squirming at the repeated use of 'Einstein's theory of general relativity' (it should be general theory of relativity), but this, for me, was a lesser error than some of the historical misinformation. We're told that Aristotle proposed the 'first model of the universe' - but there were plenty around earlier, such as Anaximander's, predating Aristotle by around 150 years. Equally we're told that 'Lipperhey' invented the telescope. Leaving aside his name being Lippershey, we know for certain he didn't as he attempted to patent it and failed because of prior claims (not to mention the Digges's work in the UK etc.) And, bizarrely, Schilling tells us that Einstein got the idea of a fixed speed for light from Michelson-Morley, rather than Maxwell.

Luckily there's only a relatively small part of the book that is history of science and, as mentioned, the parts explaining the science are much better. The description of Weber bars, the building of LIGO and the battles involved along the way are told much more engagingly in Black Hole Blues, but if it's just the science parts you want, this is a good one to go for.

Hardback:  
Kindle:  


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Dialogues - Clifford Johnson ***

The authors of science books are always trying to find new ways to get the message across to their audiences. In Dialogues, Clifford Johnson combines a very modern technique - the graphic novel or comic strip - with an approach that goes back to Ancient Greece - using a dialogue to add life to what might seem a dry message.

We have seen the comic strip approach trying to put across quite detailed science before in Mysteries of the Quantum Universe. As with that book, Dialogues manages to cover a fair amount of actual physics, but I still feel that the medium just wastes vast acres of page to say very little at all. This is brought home here because quite a lot of the sections of Dialogues start with several pages with no text on at all, just setting up the scenario.

As for using a discussion between two people to put a message across, Johnson makes the point that, for instance, Galileo's very readable masterpiece Two New Sciences is in the form of a dialogue (more accurately a discu…

Liam Drew - Four Way Interview

Liam Drew is a writer and former neurobiologist. he has a PhD in sensory biology from University College, London and spent 12 years researching schizophrenia, pain and the birth of new neurons in the adult mammalian brain. His writing has appeared in Nature, New Scientist, Slate and the Guardian. He lives in Kent with his wife and two daughters. His new book is I, Mammal.

Why science?

As hackneyed as it is to say, I think I owe my fascination with science to a great teacher – in my case, Ian West, my A-level biology teacher.  Before sixth form, I had a real passion for the elegance and logic of maths, from which a basic competence at science at school arose.  But I feel like I mainly enjoyed school science in the way a schoolkid enjoys being good at stuff, rather than it being a passion.

Ian was a revelation to me.  He was a stern and divisive character, but I loved the way he taught.  He began every lesson by providing us with a series of observations and fact, then, gradually, between …

A Galaxy of Her Own - Libby Jackson ****

This is an interesting book, even if it probably tries to be too many things to too many people. I wondered from the cover design whether it was a children's book, but the publisher's website (and the back of the book) resolutely refuse to categorise it as such. The back copy doesn't help by saying that it will 'inspire trailblazers and pioneers of all ages.' As I belong to the set 'all ages' I thought I'd give it a go.

Inside are featured the 'stories of fifty inspirational women who have been fundamental to the story of humans in space.' So, in some ways, A Galaxy of Her Own presents the other side of the coin to Angela Saini's excellent Inferior. But, inevitably, given the format, it can hardly provide the same level of discourse.

Despite that 'all ages' comment and the lack of children's book labelling we get a bit of a hint when we get to a bookplate page in the form of a Galaxy Pioneers security pass (with the rather worrying…