Skip to main content

The Story of Astronomy – Heather Couper & Nigel Henbest *****

Of all the sciences, astronomy is probably the one that most often grabs us when we’re young. If you want hands on experience of particle physics or cell biology you need to be in a lab. To get practical experience of astronomy all you’ve got to do is go out on a dark night. I think this explains the enduring appeal of the BBC’s The Sky of Night programme. It’s years since I watched it regularly, but I’ve only got to catch the opening of that theme music to get a lump in my throat. Astronomy has a universal appeal, and the team of Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest tell it wonderfully in this highly approachable book.
The great thing about The Story of Astronomy is the way it tells the story of thousands of years of discovery through people. It is genuinely engaging and fascinating. Whether we’re hearing about Copernicus and Galileo or Hubble and Leavitt there’s a whole host of individuals helping us to fill in what genuinely is a story with good narrative thrust. A lot of it inevitably is familiar ground. (There’s quite a lot of overlap, for example, with my own Light Years – since light is the main vehicle for exploring astronomy – and it takes a very similar people-driven narrative approach.) Even so, the authors manage to keep it fresh. For example I found the section on the discovery of Pluto and its (very sensible) demotion to a minor planet had plenty that was new to me, and kept me turning the pages.
There’s only one gripe I had with this book that nearly made me drop it down to four stars – the authors insist on repeatedly including little interview snippets where people we’ve neither heard of or, frankly, care about keep putting in their opinions. It’s fine to have little interviews in a book if the subject is directly relevant to the topic. So, say, with Jocelyn Bell Burnell on pulsars. But not these regular visits to historians of science and such so they can throw in a bon mot. It smacks too much of a book trying hard to be a TV series (‘Look, we’ve got talking heads and everything!’), it breaks the flow, and I really don’t like it.
That apart, though – and it’s relatively easy to ignore – this book is delight and a must for anyone with even a passing interest in looking up at the night sky. Which should be all of us.

Paperback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Superior - Angela Saini *****

It was always going to be difficult to follow Angela Saini's hugely popular Inferior, but with Superior she has pulled it off, not just in the content but by upping the quality of the writing to a whole new level. Where Inferior looked at the misuse of science in supporting sexism (and the existence of sexism in science), Superior examines the way that racism has been given a totally unfounded pseudo-scientific basis in the past - and how, remarkably, despite absolute evidence to the contrary, this still turns up today.

At the heart of the book is the scientific fact that 'race' simply does not exist biologically - it is nothing more than an outdated social label. As Saini points out, there are far larger genetic variations within a so-called race than there are between individuals supposedly of different races. She shows how, pre-genetics, racial prejudice was given a pseudo-scientific veneer by dreaming up fictitious physical differences over and above the tiny distinct…

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …