Skip to main content

The Georgian Star – Michael D. Lemonick ***

The eighteenth century astronomer William Herschel is best known for discovering the planet Uranus, but as this compact biography brings out, Herschel did much more, particularly in his theories on the nature and scale of the cosmos.
Michael Lemonick does a workman like job of telling Herschel’s life story, from military band member to leading astronomer, and the book is probably most interesting when exploring the character of Herschel’s long suffering (though some of it was self-inflicted) sister Caroline.
There’s nothing wrong with this book, but it doesn’t really present anything new about Herschel, nor does it really bring a spark of excitement to what should be quite a remarkable life story.
There’s one point when the author veers completely off-beam. We are told that ‘William Herschel was now forty-three years old at a time when long life was uncommon, if not unheard of. He was determined to understand nothing less than the structure of the universe and its contents, and had no idea how much time was left to do so.’ This perpetuates the myth that at a time when the average lifespan in the UK was probably less than 50, that 43 was old. But that average age reflects the huge infant mortality of the time. If a man of good means reached 43, he was pretty likely also to reach his late sixties – so Herschel was unlikely to have considered himself about to drop off his perch.
At risk of damning with faint praise, there’s nothing wrong with the book, but it’s not a biography to really get your teeth into. If you want a really good biography of Herschel, see Discoverers of the Universe.
Hardback:  
Review by Peter Spitz

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…