Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Cosmology: a very short introduction – Peter Coles ****

The OUP ‘very short introduction’ series provide a quick overview of many, many topics. Sometimes the approach can be so summary that it really doesn’t do the subject justice, but other times it is pitched just right to give the reader all the basics, so they can go on to read more if needed, but have all the essentials to hand.
Peter Coles’ addition to the series on cosmology very much fits into the second camp. It fits in a surprising amount of detail into a compact pocket book of around 130 pages. There is no attempt here to dumb down – Coles gives us an erudite but largely approachable introduction to the universe and its origins. Although we start with a touch of mythology, this isn’t a history of the subject in chronological order. We jump straight, for instance, from Hubble and his diagram to the Hubble telescope. But that makes sense in the way that Coles is building the subject.
It’s fair to say that if you read this little book, you really will be well prepared to take on discussions about the origin of the universe, will have a good grasp of what is and isn’t known about it, and will be able to knowledgably raise an eyebrow at some of Stephen Hawking’s more outrageous pronouncements.
If I’m being picky, the language can be a little dry. Sentences like ‘In mathematics, a singularity is a pathological property wherein the numerical value of a particular quantity becomes infinite during the course of a calculation,’ don’t do a lot for the general reader to illuminate the nature of the singularities at the heart of the big bang or black holes. But the whole book doesn’t read like this, and the majority of readers who want to pick up a quick background in the technical side of cosmology shouldn’t have a problem.
The other slight issue is that the book was published in 2001. A remarkable amount of the content is still fine, but inevitably in such a fast moving subject there are some aspects that have dated a little. (The best guess for the age of the universe is given as 15 billion years, for instance.) Maybe it’s time for a new edition.
With that proviso, an excellent source to get the basics of the technical aspects of cosmology in a small but beautifully formed package.
Review by Brian Clegg

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