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 

Review by Andrew May

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 …