Thursday, 19 October 2006

The Cosmic Verses – James Muirden ****

To be honest, the thought of a science book entirely in rhyme filled me with dread – it seemed like a cross breed between William McGonagall and John Gribbin, a terrifying thought. In practice the reality is much better. The Cosmic Verses is a charming read in which James Muirden manages to pack a surprisingly broad view of the history of our ideas on the universe into verse form. The style is a loose rhyming structure, though occasionally he has a little section in a different form, such as limerick. There are also short side notes where a point needs a little more explanation – where these are more than a couple of words, they too rhyme.
The book is largely chronological, only having major hiccups by ignoring the timing of the Judeo-Christian inputs to ideas on creation and slotting them in to later interpretations, and in a decidedly unbalanced portrayal of religious impact on science that conveniently forgets, for example, who was responsible for the final destruction of the library at Alexandria. Muirden is also a little harsh on medieval science, which had more ideas about (for instance) the shape and size of the universe than he represents, although he does brings out some partially forgotten names like Grosseteste.
Wisely, Muirden makes strong use of personalities along the way. There are the expected figures like Copernicus and Kepler, but it’s good to see him bringing in other, perhaps less known, individuals like Annie Jump Cannon and Henrietta Swan Leavitt, whose undoubted contribution to scaling the universe is sometimes forgotten. Amazingly, and it’s a real mark of just how good Muirden is, some of the text explains the science better than any other book I’ve come across. For instance, Muirden’s explanation of Ole Romer’s method for calculating the speed of light is the best I’ve seen.
If I have a moan it’s the gratuitous use of Stephen Hawking who only seems to be in there for the sake of mentioning him – and if you really want to be picky, Muirden is over-dismissive of Fred Hoyle and the steady state theory: “He called his scheme the Steady State… support for it was never great.” This is something of a misrepresentation: there was real uncertainty between big bang and steady state for years, and for a period of time the evidence seemed if anything to favour the latter.
This is a lovely little book – it doesn’t take too long to read, the verse is charming, and the content is surprisingly thorough. As a portrait of the universe, I have suffered many worse…
Review by Jo Reed

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