Skip to main content

The Cosmos: A Beginner’s Guide – Adam Hart-Davis and Paul Bader ****

Is it book? Is it a TV show? No, it’s very obviously the book of a TV show – in this case, a BBC series of six parts looking at the way we explore the cosmos, presented by the UK’s one time favourite science presenter before Brian Cox came on the scene, one of a long tradition of eccentrics who have graced the British screen, Adam Hart-Davis. This is a man who thinks nothing of wearing clothes that would only be considered fashionable by a demented boy scout leader. (You may wonder what Mr H-D’s dress sense has to do with the book – his photograph does appear in it rather a lot, and his name is much bigger on the front than co-author Paul Bader’s (see the image) – this is, to some extent, a celebrity propelled vehicle.)
Once you get a big disappointment out of the way, which is down to the way it has been lifted from the TV show, it’s actually quite a good book. The disappointment is that it doesn’t do what it says on the tin. It’s not really about the cosmos, it’s mostly about the machines we use to explore the cosmos – so there’s a lot more, for instance, about satellites and telescopes than there is about dark matter, multiverses or the inner workings of stars. This is probably because of the TV show origins – it’s a lot easier to show our heroes exploring telescopes and space station mock-ups than it is to show ideas about the nature of the universe, which are inevitably rather hands-off. But if you do take it for what it is, there’s some beautiful photography of the equipment and the stars, and it provides real insights into the latest work in telescopes, exploratory satellites and space-based telescopes. While Hart-Davis’s jolly and enthusiastic style isn’t for everyone, it does make for a pleasant reading experience.
One or two quibbles. From the price, the book seems to be aimed at adults, yet a number of the visual design elements in it are irritatingly childish. Occasional diagrams, made to look like photographs of documents have fake coffee cup rings on them, the sort of visual effect I thought went out with the Monty Python books – and mini-biographies are displayed in little “biog file” boxes, presented like something a nine year old would collect in bubblegum wrappers. The “biogs” are also painfully summary, and in at least one case, poorly researched. We are told that Einstein renounced his German citizenship “After Hitler came to power in 1933.” In fact it was nothing to do with Hitler coming to power – it was at age 16 in 1895 that he began the process of giving up his German citizenship, and he became a Swiss citizen in 1901 – so this is not just a tiny slip, it’s monumentally wrong. We also see a rather adolescent approach in the attempts to give context. When describing the debate over whether nebulae were island universes, we are told “In previous years the debate would have been accompanied by a glass of wine. But in America the era of prohibition had just begun, so alcohol was out.” We are left asking “So?”
If you want a basic primer (and it doesn’t claim to be anything else) on how we explore the universe without ever leaving our solar system, and can cope with the style, this is an excellent introduction. It would probably sit best with younger high school students, but in principle could be enjoyed by any age from 10 to 100.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Adam Roberts - Four Way Interview

Adam Roberts is commonly described as one of the UK's most important writers of SF. He is the author of numerous novels and literary parodies. He is Professor of 19th Century Literature at Royal Holloway, London University, and has written a number of critical works on both SF and 19th Century poetry. His latest novel is The Real-Town Murders.

Why science fiction?

Because it's the best thing in the world. I work for the University of London, which is to say: in effect, I'm paid to read books (and teach them, and write about them) and that means I read a lot of books; and that means you can believe me when I say that SF/Fantasy, and especially (even though it's not something I write) YA SF/Fantasy, is where all the most exciting writing is happening nowadays. You might wonder why I think so: but that's a whole other question, and you've already used up your four ...

Why this book?

So, I came across an account of one of Alfred Hitchcock's (many) unfinished projec…

The Real-Town Murders (SF) - Adam Roberts *****

Of all the contemporary science fiction writers, Adam Roberts can most be relied on to deliver a book that combines an engaging story with extensions of current science and technology that really makes you think - and The Real-Town Murders does this perfectly.

Set in the south east of England, a few decades in the future, this book delivers a trio of delights. The main character, Alma, is faced with constant time pressure as she faces physical and mental challenges (including a lovely homage to North-by-Northwest), there is an apparently impossible locked room mystery and there is fascinating speculation about the impact three technologies - AI, nanotechnology and virtual reality - may have on human life and politics.

Roberts' inventiveness comes through time after time - for example, Alma's partner is locked into a genetically engineered nightmare where she suffers a different medical emergency every four hours which only Alma can fix. It's just a shame, in a way, that Marg…

UFO Drawings from the National Archives - David Clarke ***

This is a lovely little book that, sadly, not every reader will see the point of. If somebody’s anecdotal account of a presumed alien encounter is obviously a misperception of a mundane occurrence, or else too vague – or too far-fetched – to be taken seriously, then it’s all too easy to dismiss it as worthless. But that’s missing the point. The fact that so many incidents are reported in these terms makes the witnesses’ testimony worthy of serious study – to teach us, not about extraterrestrial civilisations, but about our own culture.

That was the core message of David Clarke’s excellent How UFOs Conquered the World published a couple of years ago. Now Clarke is back with another take on the same basic theme.  His day job is Reader and Principal Lecturer in Journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, but for the last ten years he’s also acted as consultant for the National Archives project to release all of Britain’s official Ministry of Defence (MoD) files on UFOs. Throughout the Cold…