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Tweeting the Universe – Marcus Chown & Govert Schilling ***

My first reaction to this book was that it was going to be an irritating gimmick. How far could you get, after all, putting across complex science in 140 character tweets? However, Marcus Chown is one of the best science writers around, who I trust with my brain (I don’t know Govert Schilling), so I was prepared to suspend disbelief.
I immediately found the style was a little irritating in its conciseness, but it did produce a certain poetic need to really craft all the words that made some of the entries like little works of art. Another concern might be that making the content so short would result in over-simplification, but in most of the entries this wasn’t the case.
There were a few small issues, though. I was a bit worried by the first entry, on Newton’s light and colour work. We come across Newton first using his prism to split light into colours at his home in Woolsthorpe. The trouble is, he bought his first prism at the 1664 Stourbridge fair (near Cambridge), several months before he was exiled home by the plague, and infamously he made a hole to use it in his blinds at Cambridge, not ‘through a slit in the curtains at Woolsthorpe’. It’s not that he didn’t do more work on light in his enforced leave of absence, but it wasn’t the beginning, as the book (or rather its enforcedly compact entries).
Another example of a slight problem probably caused by the condensed text is in the explanation of the tides, which is simplified enough to miss out entirely the main reason that there is a second tide on the far side of the Earth from the Moon.
As I got further in, I did, I confess, increasingly find the choppiness of the prose a bit off-putting. I had to work really hard not to skip over chunks as soon as I had got the gist, to try to keep things flowing. Don’t get me wrong, there’s lots of good stuff in here (particularly some lovely compact cosmology), but I would still much rather read a ‘normal’ book.
One last shame – this was a book that cried out for a section at the back with further reading suggestions for people who have got a taster from what’s on offer. (Each of these could have been tweet length.) There were even loads of blank pages at the back where the recommendations could have gone (I counted 15 empty pages). Certainly this is a bit of fun, and would make a very acceptable gift book, certainly there is some good material in there, but in the end the real thing is not quite as good as the original idea promised. This is not the authors’ fault – they’ve done a great job under the circumstances – just the inevitable limitations of the format.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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