Skip to main content

The Cosmic Web - J. Richard Gott ****

This is a book about the large-scale structure of the universe. It’s a subject Richard Gott is particularly well qualified to talk about, having been associated with it since the 1970s. When he was still a graduate student he did pioneering work on the gravitational clumping of galaxies into galaxy clusters. Initially it was believed that this clumping tendency would repeat itself in an ever-ascending hierarchy, with stars clumping into galaxies, galaxies into clusters, clusters into superclusters and so on up to the very largest scales. In time, however, both observational and theoretical work led to a much more complex picture – the ‘cosmic web’ of the book’s title.

Topologically, the universe resembles a giant sea sponge. Unlike the hierarchical model, the high density concentrations of matter (corresponding to the body of the sponge) are not isolated clumps, but a single intricately connected structure. At the same time, the low density ‘voids’ running through it are likewise continuously connected – in contrast to the holes in a Swiss cheese, which was another early model that had to be discarded. Gott was among the first people to recognize the sponge-like structure of the universe – in part because, as a precocious high-school student back in the 1960s, he had done a science fair project on topological models of exactly that kind.

There’s no question that Gott is one of the world’s leading experts in this subject – but is he the best person to write a popular science book about it? I think the answer is a qualified ‘yes’. I really enjoyed his writing style, which is as lucid and unadorned as I’ve ever come across in an academic author. The theory never gets too difficult, either – mainly classical dynamics and statistics, with no relativistic or quantum complications. Nevertheless, Gott is not one of those writers who pretends you can have mathematics-free physics. There are no actual equations (except in the small print at the end of the book), but there are plenty of graphs, Greek letters and powers-of-ten numbers. This is not a book for people who are scared of such things.

At one point, Gott recounts an amusing anecdote he heard from the great Russian physicist Yakov Zeldovich, highlighting the benefits of using the median rather than the mean as a statistical measure. Yet he tells it to the reader exactly the way Zeldovich told it to him – without explaining how the mean and median are defined, or what they are used for. If those things are second nature to you, then you’ll appreciate the anecdote… and you’ll probably enjoy the whole book, too. If not, then you may find it heavy going.

This is the sort of book I would have loved when I was an undergraduate, or possibly even as a mind-stretching read in high school. It’s a young audience of future scientists who will probably get the most out of it today – not just for the picture it paints of how the universe is made, but for its unique inside view of four decades of cutting-edge research.


Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Andrew May

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Ancestral Night (SF) - Elizabeth Bear *****

Only a couple of weeks ago, reviewing a 1960s SF book, I bemoaned the fact that science fiction novels of ideas are less common now. Although it is correctly labelled a space opera, Ancestral Night delivers ideas with aplomb.

Let's deal with the space opera aspect first. Elizabeth Bear provides some excellent adventure scenes in space, and we've the usual mix of huge spaceships and interesting aliens. Main character Haimey Dz is an engineer on a ship that salvages wrecks - but, as we gradually discover - she also has a forgotten past. A major feature of the storyline (one that seems to link to the medieval idea of the lost wisdom of the past) is ancient technology from a long-dead race with capabilities, notably manipulating spacetime mentally (Bear has yet to point out that the travel technologies used here could manipulate time as well as space), which fit well with Arthur C. Clarke's magic definition.

I particularly liked the (surely intentional) nods to the much-misse…

The Creativity Code - Marcus du Sautoy *****

At first glance this might just be another 'What AI is good at and not so good at' title. And in a way, it is. But, wow, what a brilliant book! Marcus du Sautoy takes us on a tour of what artificial intelligence has achieved (and possibly can in the future achieve) in a range of fields from his own of mathematics, through game playing, music, art and more.

After a little discussion of what creativity is, we start off with the now very familiar story of DeepMind's AlphaGo and its astonishing ability to take on the hugely challenging game of Go. Even though I've read about this many times before, du Sautoy, as a Go player and mathematician, gives a real feel for why this was such a triumph - and so shocking. Not surprisingly he is also wonderful on what mathematicians actually do, how computers have helped them to date and how they have the potential to do far more in the future. After all, mathematics is by far the closest science to game playing, as it has strict rule…

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…