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:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Peter Spitz

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lucy Jane Santos - Four Way Interview

Lucy Jane Santos is an expert in the history of 20th century leisure, health and beauty, with a particular interest in (some might say obsession with) the cultural history of radioactivity. Writes & talks (a lot) about cocktails and radium. Her debut book Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium was published by Icon Books in July 2020.

Why science?

I have always been fascinated by the idea of science especially our daily interactions with and understandings of science – especially in a beauty context. I could spend hours pondering the labels of things on my bathroom shelf. What is 4-t-butylcyclohexanol (as a random example)? Do I really understand what I am putting on my face and spending my money on? Would it change my purchase habits if I did?  

Why this book?

This book came from an accidental discovery – that there was a product called Tho Radia which contained radium and thorium. I found out about it because I actually bought a pot of it – along with a big batch of other produc…

Rewilding: Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe ****

Those who are enthusiastic about saving the environment often have a mixed relationship with science. They might for example, support organic farming or oppose nuclear power, despite organics having no nutritional benefit and requiring far more land to be used to raise the same amount of crops, while nuclear is a green energy source that should be seen as an essential support to renewables. This same confusion can extend to the concept of rewilding, which is one reason that the subtitle of this book uses the word 'radical'.

As Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe make clear, though, radical change is what is required if we are to encourage ecological recovery. To begin with, we need to provide environments for nature that take in the big picture - thinking not just of individual nature reserves but, for example, of corridors that link areas allowing safe species migration. And we also need to move away from an arbitrary approach to restricting to 'native' species, as sometimes…

Is Einstein Still Right? - Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes ***

If there's one thing that gets a touch tedious in science reporting it's the news headlines that some new observation or experiment 'proves Einstein right' - as if we're still not sure about relativity. At first glance that's what this book does too, but in reality Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes are celebrating the effectiveness of the general theory of relativity, while being conscious that there may still be situations where, for whatever reason, the general theory is not sufficient.

It's a genuinely interesting book - what Will and Yunes do is take experiments that are probably familiar to the regular popular science reader already and expand on the simplified view of them we are usually given. So, for example, one of the first things they mention is the tower experiments to show the effect of gravitational red shift. I was aware of these experiments, but what we get here goes beyond the basics of the conceptual experiment to deal with the realities of d…