Skip to main content

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.

Paperback:  
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 …