Tuesday, 14 December 2010

50 Ideas you Really need to Know: Universe – Joanne Baker **

This is another title in the same series as 50 Physics Ideas you Really need to Know, but ’50 Universe ideas you need to Know’ doesn’t really work as a title, so they’ve had to fiddle around with it. Like its predecessor, it’s a struggle to know exactly what this book is. It’s certainly not an end-to-end read, comprising of 50 short items. In fact it’s more like a children’s book in format, down to having cutesy little quotes and useless summaries for each item: ‘the universe’s warm bath of photons’ is one of the better ones, for the cosmic background radiation, but they are more style than substance.
On the good side, it’s approachably written and covers all the major topics you would expect in a book about cosmology (plus rather a lot of physics to pad it out to 50). It also looks rather handsome, in a series format that seems to be based on a wooden framed slate, for some reason. However there are some significant limitations.
The biggest overall one is that it is smug science. Dealing with the most speculative of sciences, it is written as if it is dealing with concrete fact. About the only place any doubt is inserted is when dealing with string theory (not exactly cosmology), but mostly, whether dealing with the big bang or dark matter, there is no suggestion that there are any sensible alternatives, or that the means of investigating all this are so indirect that there is plenty of room for error. Most grown up popular science will explain the realities rather than the fictional solid truth – in this respect, as in the format, it is more like a children’s book than anything for grownups.
The other issue is that it contains a fair number of errors. According to the blurb, the author studied physics at Cambridge and has a PhD in Astrophysics – but it doesn’t always show. The very first item on planets glibly states the ‘rules’ of what defines a planet without noticing that several of the traditional planets don’t actually succeed in the ‘clearing the neighbourhood’ rule. Joanne Baker also fails to point out when dealing with the ancients that their definition of ‘planet’ included the sun and moon. A more basic error comes up in the section on black holes. We are told about escape velocity that ‘a rocket needs to attain this speed if it is to escape the Earth.’ No it doesn’t, and this is basic physics. A rock needs to attain that speed, but a rocket can escape the Earth at 1 metre per hour if it wants to, because it is under power. This really isn’t good enough, and it’s not the only example.
Overall, then, it is hard to be entirely positive about this book. It is well presented, and covers all the basics (if with some errors), but it doesn’t read like an adult popular science book.
Hardback:  
Review by Peter Spitz

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