Skip to main content

How Old is the Universe? – David A. Weintraub ***

There’s an old test often applied by agents when presented with a book idea. Is it just a magazine article? It might seem terrible to suggest that your hard-worked on book is really just an article – but the point is that there are some stories that people want to read about in depth and others where a magazine article is really all that you can make of it and keep readers with you.
The story of putting an age to the universe certainly has plenty of twists and turns along the way, so there’s is no suggestion that this just a magazine article of a story – yet we have to face up to the fact that most books on cosmology will cover this in a chapter, so David Weintraub really does have to work hard to keep us going through a chunky 363 page volume. Does he succeed? Yes and no.
The first part of the book is probably the best. Here we are working up gradually, putting together the clues that will give us a best indication for an age of the universe, starting with fixing a timescale for the solar system on the logical assumption that it can hardly be older than the universe. Then we go through the ages of other stars, getting older, heading back, and finally to the whole expanding universe with all the joy of dark matter.
There is certainly a lot of matter here – not just the dark stuff. Weintraub pours in the information relentlessly. Once I had got into the middle, age of the stars, section, I began to feel ‘This is too much.’ Writing popular science is a delicate art. You have to balance representing the facts and theories as accurately as possible with making the material accessible and, well, enjoyable. I’m afraid that by the time I was about half way through the book it felt like too much hard work.
Just one example. There is a whole chapter on how to read a Hertzsprung-Russell diagram (the archetypal astrophysics plot showing how the different stars vary in temperature against brightness and providing a ‘main sequence’ that describes the evolution of many stars, plus a whole range of other good things). I did an astrophysics option in my undergraduate degree and we spent 5 minutes on the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram. Here we’ve got a whole chapter. I’m not doing down the importance of the diagram – it’s a critical tool – but just emphasising how much detail the author takes us into.
Overall this is a book I would highly recommend if you are an amateur astronomer who really wants to get into the nitty gritty of the hardcore side of the subject, or someone on an undergraduate course. But I can’t really recommend it for the general reader who wants to know more about the story of how we can state that the universe is very probably around 13.7 billion years old.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Rockets and Rayguns - Andrew May ****

The Cold War period saw dramatic developments in science and technology, coinciding with the flourishing of the science fiction genre. In Rockets and Rayguns, Andrew May draws on the parallels between reality and fiction, each influencing the other.

Inevitably a major Cold War theme was the threat of nuclear war, and May opens with the bomb. It's fascinating that fiction got there first - nuclear weapons were featured in science fiction when many physicists were still doubting the practicality of using nuclear energy. Of course, it's a lot easier to simply take a concept and dream up a weapon than it is to make it for real - for example, H. G. Wells' prophetic nuclear bombs from his 1914 The World Set Free were nothing like the real thing. And some science fiction devices concepts - notably ray guns and force fields - came to very little in reality. However this doesn't prevent the parallels being of interest.

May gives us a mix of the science - describing how nuclear we…

Galileo Galilei, the Tuscan Artist – Pietro Greco ****

Near the beginning of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, he refers to a ‘Tuscan artist’ viewing the Moon through an optic glass. He’s talking about Galileo – one of history’s greatest scientists, but not the most obvious person to slap an ‘artist’ label on. Yet Galileo lived at a time – the Renaissance – when it was fashionable to dabble impartially in both the arts and sciences. Look up ‘Renaissance man’ on Wikipedia and you’ll see Galileo’s picture right there underneath Leonardo da Vinci’s. It’s a less well-known side to his life, but it crops up again and again – interspersed among his many scientific achievements – in this excellent new biography by Pietro Greco.

If you’re looking for interesting trivia, you’ll find plenty in this book. Galileo’s father was a musician with scientific leanings, who carried out some of the first experiments on musical acoustics – which Galileo may have assisted with. As a young professor of mathematics, Galileo delivered a couple of lectures on …

Meet Your Bacteria - Nicola Temple and Catherine Whitlock ***

There have been a good number of books on our microbiome - the bacteria and other tiny organisms living in our body - from The Wild Life of Our Bodies throughI, Superorganism to I Contain Multitudes. Each of these is a traditional popular science book format, and all, to some degree, suffer from the same problem - in part, they have a tendency to present collections of facts, little more than bullet points of information strung together, rather than providing an effective narrative. As Meet Your Bacteria is in a significantly different format, there was a chance to imbue the subject with more dynamism and interest.'

When I first looked at the book, I assumed from its shape and cover that it would be in the style of highly illustrated, two-page spreads with large illustrations and the text little more than captions. In reality, Nicola Temple and Catherine Whitlock manage to subvert that format - it is, indeed, presented as a series of separate two-page spreads, but there is far more…