Skip to main content

What if the Earth had two Moons? – Neil F. Comins ***

There is a great idea behind this book. Why not, as a thought experiment, change the parameters ohere is a great idea behind this book. Why not, as a thought experiment, change the parameters of our solar system and see how things would be different, using this to explore cosmology on a wider scale. So, for instance, the book goes through the title scenario, but also what if:
  • the Earth were a moon?
  • The Moon orbited backwards?
  • The Earth’s crust was thicker?
… and so on for a total of 10 scenarios. Along the way we’ll find out more about everything from black holes to the Big Bang, but particularly lots about how planets and solar systems form and function.
In principle this is wonderful, but the execution has three problems.
Firstly there’s the way that the ‘What if’ concept is approached. Although the title specifically says ‘What if the Earth had two Moons?’ the chapter actually describes a planet called Dimaan that’s a bit like the Earth and has two moons. This is frustrating, as I really want to know what the actual Earth would be like, not a planet like Earth. This approach means Neil Comins is always flipping between describing the Earth and Dimaan (etc.), which irritates. I also find the science fictional naming a bit painful – so, for example, the second chapter has a system where the Sun is called the Zon. Why?
Speaking of fiction, the second problem is that each chapter begins with a rather painful bit of fiction set on the world that chapter is dealing with. The people who feature in the stories are human, and sometimes even are real people like Galileo or Columbus. This is both confusing and twee. Some of the storylines are bizarre. In one two children are presenting alternative theories at the Royal Society. Why would children be presenting at the Royal Society? And worse still, there’s an elementary plotting error: the second child doesn’t even get a chance to present her theory because she gets an asthma attack. Why? It doesn’t go anywhere. This is just self-indulgence.
Finally, I have to confess that by about the third chapter it all gets a bit samey. Ok, each of the scenarios have interesting implications and we keep getting extra snippets about the universe as a whole, but in the end we keep reading about how various parameters of the Earth (or rather, the not Earth) would be different, and what started as a fascinating concept ends up as a rather nerdy detailing of information that isn’t of great interest unless you specialize in planetary behaviour. The best science writing can take the mundane and make it exciting. This takes the dramatic and makes it mundane.
There’s no doubt that there is a lot of good stuff in here. Comins knows his astronomical onions and packs in lots of information in his 10 interesting scenarios. It’s a great idea. But even the best ideas don’t always work as you hope – and that’s what I found with What if the Earth had two Moons.
Paperback:  
Also in hardback:  
Review by Brian Cleggf our solar system and see how things would be different, using this to explore cosmology on a wider scale. So, for instance, the book goes through the title scenario, but also what if:
  • the Earth were a moon?
  • The Moon orbited backwards?
  • The Earth’s crust was thicker?
… and so on for a total of 10 scenarios. Along the way we’ll find out more about everything from black holes to the Big Bang, but particularly lots about how planets and solar systems form and function.
In principle this is wonderful, but the execution has three problems.
Firstly there’s the way that the ‘What if’ concept is approached. Although the title specifically says ‘What if the Earth had two Moons?’ the chapter actually describes a planet called Dimaan that’s a bit like the Earth and has two moons. This is frustrating, as I really want to know what the actual Earth would be like, not a planet like Earth. This approach means Neil Comins is always flipping between describing the Earth and Dimaan (etc.), which irritates. I also find the science fictional naming a bit painful – so, for example, the second chapter has a system where the Sun is called the Zon. Why?
Speaking of fiction, the second problem is that each chapter begins with a rather painful bit of fiction set on the world that chapter is dealing with. The people who feature in the stories are human, and sometimes even are real people like Galileo or Columbus. This is both confusing and twee. Some of the storylines are bizarre. In one two children are presenting alternative theories at the Royal Society. Why would children be presenting at the Royal Society? And worse still, there’s an elementary plotting error: the second child doesn’t even get a chance to present her theory because she gets an asthma attack. Why? It doesn’t go anywhere. This is just self-indulgence.
Finally, I have to confess that by about the third chapter it all gets a bit samey. Ok, each of the scenarios have interesting implications and we keep getting extra snippets about the universe as a whole, but in the end we keep reading about how various parameters of the Earth (or rather, the not Earth) would be different, and what started as a fascinating concept ends up as a rather nerdy detailing of information that isn’t of great interest unless you specialize in planetary behaviour. The best science writing can take the mundane and make it exciting. This takes the dramatic and makes it mundane.
There’s no doubt that there is a lot of good stuff in here. Comins knows his astronomical onions and packs in lots of information in his 10 interesting scenarios. It’s a great idea. But even the best ideas don’t always work as you hope – and that’s what I found with What if the Earth had two Moons.
Paperback:  
Also in hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…