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

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 …