Skip to main content

How it Ends – Chris Impey ***

There’s a feeling in the publishing business that books on subjects that are a bit of a downer (with the exception of misery memoirs) rarely do well. The subject of this title is about as miserable as they come – how everything from people to the universe ends. Your death. The Earth’s extinction. The end of the universe. Cheerful? Not exactly.
To be fair to Chris Impey, he weaves in a lot of interesting stuff along the way. Despite the title, a lot of it isn’t about endings. Yes, he covers death, but also the nature of life and the Earth’s biosphere. You’ll learn about evolution, what stars are and how they come into being, the big bang and more along the way to the eventual demise of each and every subject. He covers the science with a light touch, but manages to pack in a good amount of information. It’s never difficult to absorb, which with such a big canvas is impressive. And yet it’s hard not to be depressed, especially when he starts off with personal death. It might be inevitable, but this is one subject I’m prepared to have my head in the sand about.
Apart from the subject, the other problem I have with the book is its style. It will appeal to some readers, so I can’t say this is a universal issue, but it doesn’t always work for me. There is an irritating attempt at trendiness that comes through sometimes. It’s interesting that the author is pictured on the back flap in a Hawaiian shirt. This is just the sort of stuff that would appear in the script of a TV show, presented by someone in a Hawaiian shirt to show he’s a ‘man of the people’ not a distant intellectual.
A good example of this is the way the author attributes the saying ‘Predictions can be very difficult – especially about the future,’ to ‘cartoonist Storm P.’ This sounds like someone very trendy, a sort of gangsta rapper of cartoonists. Unfortunately the image (and the attribution) is wrong. Many of us would think it was physicist Neils Bohr who first said this (I certainly did until I looked into it). A few might think it was baseball player Yogi Berra, though that has long been discredited. In fact Bohr did claim the quote was from the artist and writer Robert Storm Petersen (doesn’t sound quite so trendy when put like that, does he?) – but Bohr was wrong. The best information suggests it was first used in the Danish Parliament some time between 1935 and 1939. Even less trendy.
Here’s another example of this over-looseness: ‘[Fred Adams] has a counterculture vibe, like a surfer or a savvy drug user, and he doesn’t seem to take the serious business of the universe too seriously.’ Whoa, dude! Like, no way. Not my kind of popular science.
This isn’t a bad book. There’s lots of good information in it, and when Impey doesn’t get too carried away with being a man of the people it reads well. But the subject is one that doesn’t immediately make you want to read it, and I didn’t come across anything inside that made this feeling entirely go away.
Hardback:  
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lost in Math - Sabine Hossenfelder *****

One of my favourite illustrations from a science title was in Fred Hoyle's book on his quasi-steady state theory. It shows a large flock of geese all following each other, which he likened to the state of theoretical physics. In the very readable Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder exposes the way that in certain areas of physics, this is all too realistic a picture. (Hossenfelder gives Hoyle's cosmological theory short shrift, incidentally, though, to be fair, it wasn't given anywhere near as many opportunities to be patched up to match observations as the current version of big bang with inflation.)

Lost in Math is a very powerful analysis of what has gone wrong in the way that some aspects of physics are undertaken. Until the twentieth century, scientists made observations and experiments and theoreticians looked for theories which explained them, which could then be tested against further experiments and observations. Now, particularly in particle physics, it…

Gravity! - Pierre Binétruy ****

I had to really restrain myself from adopting the approach taken by The Register in referring to Yahoo! by putting an exclamation mark after every word in the text when faced with reviewing Gravity! One thing to be said about the punctuation, though, is it makes it easier to search for amongst a whole lot of books on gravity and gravitational waves (the subtitle is 'the quest for gravitational waves') since their discovery in 2015.

Despite the subtitle, Pierre Binétruy gives us far more - in fact, gravitational waves don't come into it until page 160, which makes it really more of a book about gravity with a bit on gravitational waves tacked on than a true exploration of the quest. 

However, those early pages aren't wasted - Binétruy gives us plenty of detail on all kinds of background, for example plunging in to tell us about element synthesis, something you wouldn't expect in a book on gravitational waves. I also really liked a little section on experiments you can…

Brain Based Enterprises - Peter Cook ****

A quick flag on this one: it's a management/business book, and the four star rating is with that in mind. Brain Based Enterprises does contain a surprising amount of science, considering this, which is why it's here, but don't expect it to be like a four star pure science book.

This is an eclectic attack on the status quo of our ideas about business. Peter Cook suggest that much of current business simply isn't oriented to the realities of a modern, technological world, and that we need to handle things very differently in a knowledge-based economy.

The book is divided into three sections. For me, the most interesting was the first 'brainy people' part, as my own business doesn't have teams and such - but for those who do there are also 'brainy teams' and 'brainy enterprises' sections. Cook stirs together a heady mix of science - from psychology to economics - music (a passion of his and a significant part of the way he works) and business the…