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

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…

The Cosmic Mystery Tour – Nicholas Mee ****

This is another book, like last year’s Enjoy Our Universe by Alvaro de Rújula, that sets out to provide a light-hearted introduction to physics and astrophysics for the general reader. It’s from the same publisher (OUP) and packaged in the same way: as a high quality small-format hardback with 200 glossy pages, the majority of them adorned with colour pictures. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Unlike its predecessor, this new book by Nicholas Mee delivers exactly what it promises.

It’s not that de Rújula’s book was a bad one, but he just wasn’t able to think his way into the reader’s mind. He kept saying ‘physics is fun’, but he was talking about the fun a professional physicist gets out of doing it – which is a very arcane, often highly mathematical, type of fun. The result, for a non-specialist reader, was actually quite alienating. Mee, on the other hand, understands exactly how his readers think, what they find interesting, and the details that – no matter how important they …

Professor Maxwell's Duplicitous Demon - Brian Clegg ****

‘It’s not uncommon when trying to give Maxwell his rightful place in the pantheon of physics to bracket him with Newton and Einstein’, Brian Clegg says towards the end of this book. In one sense that’s perfectly true. Dip into any physics textbook and you’ll see Maxwell’s name at least as often as the other two. His greatest achievement – Maxwell’s equations – did for electromagnetism what Newton had done for gravity, while laying the essential theoretical groundwork for everything Einstein was to do.

There’s a big difference, though. A few years ago, when I was offered the chance to write short biographies of Newton and Einstein, I jumped at it – because they addressed mysteries of the universe that anyone can relate to, and their lives outside physics were, if anything, even more fascinating. At the risk of sounding downright rude, you can’t say either of those things about James Clerk Maxwell. In spite of that, Brian Clegg has done a wonderful job here of recounting just what Maxwel…