Skip to main content

The Big Questions: The Universe – Stuart Clark ***

The idea of this rather stylish series of books – hardbacks with no dustcover, but with a ‘hold it closed’ elastic band, like a pocket notebook – is to present a series of key questions about an area of philosophy or science and provide answers to them. Like its companion in the series The Big Questions: Physics, this title takes on the whole of a major topic, cosmology, providing a take on the subject that doesn’t go hugely into the people and history of science, sticking instead to the facts of the matter.
This doesn’t make for great popular science. The whole point of popular science is to put science into context, to talk about how the discoveries were made (and by whom) as well as the science itself. Otherwise, what you end up with is a textbook. In this case it is a very readable introductory textbook – a wide range of topics on the nature of the universe are well covered and presented in a non-technical manner – but it still lacks that fascination that good popular science brings to the topics. Thankfully Stuart Clark does bring a few details into the areas he covers, but this is done quite inconsistently. So, for instance, we get a nice little vignette on Frank Drake and SETI, but very little on major individuals from Newton through Hubble to Einstein who are hugely involved in the story of the discoveries listed.
Generally speaking the broad spectrum of cosmology, with a fair amount of astronomy and astrophysics (with a smattering of related physics) is well covered. What I found slightly odd, though, was the inconsistency in revealing what is and isn’t speculative. So, for instance, we are offered an alternative to dark matter to explain its impact, but the big bang theory is stated as being ‘definitively proved’ – which is just not true. It is by far and away the best supported theory, but it has its problems, and there are alternatives that fit the data. The way the book is divided into questions like ‘How old is the universe?’ and ‘How did the universe form?’ means that the information is structured rather oddly. The first of these questions comes a good way before the other (with ‘What is a black hole?’ amongst those in between) which means Clark has to explain the age of the universe, our best ideas of which are wholly dependent on the model of how the universe was formed, without covering the latter.
As with the Physics book my biggest problem here is knowing who this book is aimed at. It’s too lightweight for students of the subject, but hasn’t enough context for popular science. It’s entirely readable, but rarely captures the imagination. It’s perfectly likeable, has good information and is well presented – it is, in principle, a very useful summary – but I’m not sure who it will appeal to.

Hardback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The God Game (SF) - Danny Tobey *****

Wow. I'm not sure I've ever read a book that was quite such an adrenaline rush - certainly it has been a long time since I've read a science fiction title which has kept me wanting to get back to it and read more so fiercely. 

In some ways, what we have here is a cyber-SF equivalent of Stephen King's It. A bunch of misfit American high school students face a remarkably powerful evil adversary - though in this case, at the beginning, their foe appears to be able to transform their worlds for the better.

Rather than a supernatural evil, the students take on a rogue AI computer game that thinks it is a god - and has the powers to back its belief. Playing the game is a mix of a virtual reality adventure like Pokemon Go and a real world treasure hunt. Players can get rewards for carrying out tasks - delivering a parcel, for example, which can be used to buy favours, abilities in the game and real objects. But once you are in the game, it doesn't want to let you go and is …

Uncertainty - Kostas Kampourakis and Kevin McCain ***

This is intended as a follow-on to Stuart Firestein's two books, the excellent Ignorance and its sequel, Failure, which cut through some of the myths about the nature of science and how it's not so much about facts as about what we don't know and how we search for explanations. The authors of Uncertainty do pretty much what they set out to do in explaining the significance of uncertainty and why it can make it difficult to present scientific findings to the public, who expect black-and-white facts, not grey probabilities, which can seem to some like dithering.

However, I didn't get on awfully well with the book. A minor issue was the size - it was just too physically small to hold comfortably, which was irritating. More significantly, it felt like a magazine article that was inflated to make a book. There really was only one essential point made over and over again, with a handful of repeated examples. I want something more from a book - more context and depth - that …

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …