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:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Jim Baggott - Four Way Interview

Jim Baggott is a freelance science writer. He trained as a scientist, completing a doctorate in physical chemistry at Oxford in the early 80s, before embarking on post-doctoral research studies at Oxford and at Stanford University in California. He gave up a tenured lectureship at the University of Reading after five years in order to gain experience in the commercial world. He worked for Shell International Petroleum for 11 years before leaving to establish his own business consultancy and training practice. He writes about science, science history and philosophy in what spare time he can find. His books include Atomic: The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb (2009), Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ (2012), Mass: The Quest to Understand Matter from Greek Atoms to Quantum Fields (2017), and, most recently, Quantum Space: Loop Quantum Gravity and the Search for the Structure of Space, Time, and the Universe (2018). For more info see: www…

Quantum Space: Jim Baggott *****

There's no doubt that Jim Baggott is one of the best popular science writers currently active. He specialises in taking really difficult topics and giving a more in-depth look at them than most of his peers. The majority of the time he achieves with a fluid writing style that remains easily readable, though inevitably there are some aspects that are difficult for the readers to get their heads around - and this is certainly true of his latest title Quantum Space, which takes on loop quantum gravity.

As Baggott points out, you could easily think that string theory was the only game in town when it comes to the ultimate challenge in physics, finding a way to unify the currently incompatible general theory of relativity and quantum theory. Between them, these two behemoths of twentieth century physics underlie the vast bulk of physics very well - but they simply can't be put together. String theory (and its big brother M-theory, which as Baggott points out, is not actually a the…