Skip to main content

Calculating the Cosmos - Ian Stewart ***

This is a weird one - it's a book where I'm really struggling to identify who it's for and what it is supposed to do. The only conclusion I can draw is that Calculating the Cosmos is intended for people who like Ian Stewart's excellent maths books, but who don't usually read popular science books, so need a maths-driven introduction to astronomy, astrophysics and cosmology.
The particularly odd thing is that despite the subtitle 'how mathematics unveils the universe' there is very little explicit maths in the book - it's mostly just straightforward physics with little prominence given to the mathematical side. And the physics is put across in a fairly heavy handed 'fact, fact, fact...' way - the book is light on narrative throughout. Where it does stray into history there are one or two examples that don't quite get the story straight - for instance, when talking about Newton's development of his gravitational work, Stewart tells us that it took a 'stroke of genius' to see that the Moon is both falling and moving sideways so it misses. What he doesn't point out was that the genius in question was Robert Hooke, not Isaac Newton. This is one of the few points where Newton explicitly says the idea had not occurred to him until Hooke wrote to him about it.
Where the book does stand out is where Stewart delves into something that is usually glossed over in a popular science book. Sometimes this content feels a touch 'so what?' - for example in describing the method used to simulate the formation of the Moon - but in other cases, for example the analysis of how comet 67P got its 'rubber duck' shape, the route of the Rosetta probe, and in probably the best explanation of curved spacetime and manifolds I've seen. Best of all, Stewart explains how dark matter could not exist at all, simply being a matter of making the wrong assumptions in combining the interactions of stars in a galaxy and the way he eloquently dissects the many worlds hypothesis (many of the best bits are towards the end of the book). However, these are standout moments amongst a whole collection of information we've seen so many times before, and when he does explain the science, the approach taken is often not easy to grasp - for example his impenetrable use of Penrose diagrams in talking about black holes.
The story of the Rosetta probe is probably the closest we come to having some narrative to engage us, but even here the storytelling is bland, and, from a mathematical standpoint, we miss the opportunity to look at a different kinds of mathematical involvement, as there was interesting work done on the scheduling of Rosetta's experiments to deal with the very limited communications bandwidth.
This isn't a bad book, but apart from those handful of highlights where something is explained better than elsewhere, most of it fails to bring in anything new and lacks the engaging writing style of, say, Stewart's books written with Terry Pratchett. Here Stewart rarely makes use of mathematical insights to tell us anything different to straightforward familiar astronomy and cosmology, which is a shame as he is so excellent at making maths interesting. For the science, though, we get this distinctly 'here's a fact, here's another fact, here's yet another fact' style of writing. It might work as a book for that maths-based space newcomer, but I'm afraid its not for me.


Hardback 

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

  1. There are so many glowing reviews of this book that I was beginning to think it was me that was weird for being somewhat unimpressed. I think very much the same as you, it's not up to his usual standard.He repeatedly remarks that the way the cosmos behaves is all about mathematics. It isn't, it's all abour physics - mathematics is the language the physics and the phenomena that occur. It is irritatingly ironic that he studiously avoids even quite simple mathematical reasoning that would shed light on what he is writing abou, like the way reasonances act to clear spaces within the Saturnain ring system. It seems he doesn't want to put the general readership off by including any math .... and then he introduces mathematical terms, such secular terms, that don't mean anything to someone who doesn't have some math background.

    ReplyDelete
  2. There are so many glowing reviews of this book that I was beginning to think it was me that was weird for being somewhat unimpressed. I think very much the same as you, it's not up to his usual standard.He repeatedly remarks that the way the cosmos behaves is all about mathematics. It isn't, it's all abour physics - mathematics is the language the physics and the phenomena that occur. It is irritatingly ironic that he studiously avoids even quite simple mathematical reasoning that would shed light on what he is writing abou, like the way reasonances act to clear spaces within the Saturnain ring system. It seems he doesn't want to put the general readership off by including any math .... and then he introduces mathematical terms, such secular terms, that don't mean anything to someone who doesn't have some math background.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your comment - I have a lot of time for Ian Stewart, but as you say, for me this one just didn't live up to the promise.

      Delete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Infinity Plus: Quintet (SF) - Keith Brooke (Ed.) ****

When I was younger there was nothing I liked better than a good, deep, dark (frankly, often downright miserable) science fiction story, and this collection delivers excellent modern examples that would have fit easily into a thoughtful if downbeat 70s collection such as the 'New Writing in SF' or the Interzone magazine of the day (one was actually first published in Interzone, in 1987 - the rest date between 1989 and 2010).

If I'm honest, I prefer more upbeat fiction now, but that doesn't stop me appreciating the quality of these five stories, put together by the SF website and publisher Infinity Plus. I've rarely seen a better contradiction of Margaret Atwood's putdown of science fiction as being limited to 'talking squids in outer space.' What we have here is pure character-driven storytelling with not a mention of space, spaceships, ray guns or aliens. It's the inner world, not the outer trappings of sci fi tropes that interest these writers.

On…

The Lost Planets - John Wenz **

Reading the first few lines of the introduction to this book caused a raised eyebrow. In 1600, it tells us, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake 'for his radical views - that not only was the Sun just one of many stars, but those stars likely had planets around them as well.' Unfortunately, this bends the truth. Bruno was burned at the stake for holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith - for conventional heretical beliefs amongst which his ideas on cosmology were trivial. This was an unfortunate start.

What John Wenz gives us is a people-driven story of the apparent early discovery of a number of planets orbiting other stars, made by Peter van de Kamp and his colleagues at Swarthmore College in America, most notably connected to a relatively obscure star called Barnard's star. Wenz is at his best dealing with personal conflict. The book really comes alive in a middle section where van de Kamp's discoveries are starting to be challenged. This chapter works wel…

Bone Silence (SF) - Alastair Reynolds *****

Of all the best modern SF writers, Alastair Reynolds is arguably the supreme successor to the writers of the golden age. He gives us wide-ranging vision, clever concepts and rollicking adventure - never more so than with his concluding book of the Ness sisters trilogy.

Neatly, after the first title, Revenger was written from the viewpoint of one sister, Arafura and the second, Shadow Captain, had the other sister Adrana as narrator, this book is in the third person. It neatly ties up many of the loose ends from the previous books, but also leaves vast scope for revelations to cover in the future if Reynolds decides to revisit this world (he comments in his acknowledgements 'I am, for the time being, done with the Ness sisters. Whether they are done with me remains to be seen.')

As with the previous books, the feel here is in some ways reminiscent of the excellent TV series Firefly, but with pirates rather than cowboys transported into a space setting. Set millions of years in…