Skip to main content

The Cosmic Microwave Background - Rhodri Evans ****

In the preface to this book, Rhodri Evans describes cosmology as ‘understanding the beginning, evolution and nature of the Universe’. Probably every culture in human history has made a stab at doing this. What sets modern cosmology apart, however, is that it’s based on physical observations rather than metaphysical speculations. In a nutshell, that’s what this book is about – a chronological history of observational cosmology from the renaissance to the present day.

The first chapter describes how careful observations by successive generations of astronomers gradually built up an accurate picture of the structure and scale of the solar system, followed by the extension of the cosmic distance scale to other stars in the Galaxy. The second chapter deals with the rapid progress made during the early decades of the 20th century in understanding the structure and dynamics of the Galaxy, the distances to other galaxies, and the expansion of the universe. A lot of the material in these first two chapters will be familiar to many popular science readers, but it serves as a useful reminder and scene-setting for the rest of the book.

It goes without saying that observations of stars and galaxies are relevant to cosmology. It’s less obvious that low level, high frequency radio noise is too. Yet it turns out that the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) is critical to our understanding of the universe – so critical, in fact, that it features in the book’s title. It makes its first appearance in Chapter 3, and remains at or near centre stage for the rest of the book.  Originally predicted as an observable consequence of the Big Bang hypothesis, the CMB was detected experimentally in 1965. As well as supporting the Big Bang model, it provides a unique insight in the structure of the very early universe. When the COBE satellite (the subject of Chapter 4) detected spatial fluctuations in the CMB in 1992, Stephen Hawking described it as ‘the scientific discovery of the century, if not of all time’!

The last three chapters cover all the most recent developments in observational cosmology, from space missions like WMAP and Planck to the search for gravitational waves and cosmic neutrinos. There’s ‘the most surprising astronomical finding of the century’ – the discovery in 1998 that the expansion of the universe is speeding up rather than slowing down, leading to the suggestion that as much as 75% of the universe might consist of an unknown form of ‘dark energy’. Even more controversial was the announcement in March 2014 of ‘B-mode polarization’ in the CMB – supposedly evidence for an inflationary phase that occurred when the universe was just a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old!

This is a popular science book that is eminently suitable for general readers. The emphasis is almost entirely on observations, not theory – which should come as a relief to most people, because theoretical cosmology is notoriously mathematical! Any worries that the reader is expected to have some kind of mathematical knowledge is dispelled early in the first chapter, when the author spends a page and a half carefully explaining what an ellipse is. As with any good popular science book, there is almost as much about the people who made the discoveries as about the discoveries themselves. There are even accounts of Captain Cook in Tahiti and Captain Scott in Antarctica – both of which, surprisingly enough, played a peripheral role in the history of our understanding of the universe!

The reason I want to stress that this is a popular science book is that, from a quick glance, it doesn’t look like one. The fact that it comes from an academic publisher (Springer), that it has abstracts at the start of each chapter and no index at the back, and that sections and subsections are numbered hierarchically, all make it look like a rather dry postgraduate text. But that’s not the case at all, and it would be a shame if these little quirks put off a non-specialist reader who might otherwise enjoy it. The fact is that it’s as readable and engaging an introduction to observational cosmology as you could hope to find. The book’s only fault is its price, which at £31.99 is twice what it ought to be.


Paperback 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Andrew May

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The God Game (SF) - Danny Tobey *****

Wow. I'm not sure I've ever read a book that was quite such an adrenaline rush - certainly it has been a long time since I've read a science fiction title which has kept me wanting to get back to it and read more so fiercely. 

In some ways, what we have here is a cyber-SF equivalent of Stephen King's It. A bunch of misfit American high school students face a remarkably powerful evil adversary - though in this case, at the beginning, their foe appears to be able to transform their worlds for the better.

Rather than a supernatural evil, the students take on a rogue AI computer game that thinks it is a god - and has the powers to back its belief. Playing the game is a mix of a virtual reality adventure like Pokemon Go and a real world treasure hunt. Players can get rewards for carrying out tasks - delivering a parcel, for example, which can be used to buy favours, abilities in the game and real objects. But once you are in the game, it doesn't want to let you go and is …

Uncertainty - Kostas Kampourakis and Kevin McCain ***

This is intended as a follow-on to Stuart Firestein's two books, the excellent Ignorance and its sequel, Failure, which cut through some of the myths about the nature of science and how it's not so much about facts as about what we don't know and how we search for explanations. The authors of Uncertainty do pretty much what they set out to do in explaining the significance of uncertainty and why it can make it difficult to present scientific findings to the public, who expect black-and-white facts, not grey probabilities, which can seem to some like dithering.

However, I didn't get on awfully well with the book. A minor issue was the size - it was just too physically small to hold comfortably, which was irritating. More significantly, it felt like a magazine article that was inflated to make a book. There really was only one essential point made over and over again, with a handful of repeated examples. I want something more from a book - more context and depth - that …

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 …