Skip to main content

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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…

Bodyology - Mosaic Science ****

It's a good sign when you pick up a book intending to read one chapter and end up reading three. It's very moreish. This is because it's made up of short, self-contained articles, originally published on a website. Often an edited collection of articles by different authors suggests a boring read, but here the articles are good pieces of journalism with plenty to interest the reader.

The topics are all vaguely human body related, but thankfully not all medical (not my favourite subject) - so, for example, as well as stories of a person cured of Lyme disease by bee stings or a piece on miscarriages we get topics like the effects on the body of being struck by lightning or falling from a high place. Even some more explicitly health-related matters, such as the impact of losing your sense of smell, were engaging enough to get me past my medical squeamishness.

The only reason I can't give the collection five stars is because of one aspect of the writing style that runs throu…