Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Welcome to the Universe - Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael Strauss, Richard Gott ***

One of the first things a writer is encouraged to do is to be aware of his or her audience. I think it's interesting that this book, like many written by physicists, mostly has comments on the back from physicists, because the book is written as if they were the audience. Not as serious reading - more the equivalent of a heavy literary fiction reader indulging in a bit of Agatha Christie for light relief. The trouble is that this isn't the audience it's supposed to be for. To make things worse, each of the three authors pitches their writing differently.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is his usual ebullient self, using a style that mixes the shouty with a touch of condescension. However, his content is more detailed than usual with a strong smattering of equations - enough that this sometimes feels like an introductory textbook. The opening has something of the manic 'space is really big' approach of the Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but then settles down to a quick rattle through '3,000 years of astronomy.' However, to ensure it's not too interesting he also tells us that he is not going to include details of people and discoveries. To be fair, this may be because Tyson has been slated in the past for poor history of science.

Despite the style, Tyson manages a reasonable balance of general observation and introduction of physical concepts. There is one odd chapter, about the demotion of Pluto from a planet which doesn't fit with the rest at all - it seems a bit of a vanity project for Tyson - but the rest fits together quite well. We've already come across Michael Strauss in this first section on 'stars, planets and life' as he interposes a few chapters amongst Tyson's, but he comes into his own in the second, shortest section, 'galaxies'. This is probably the least technical section of the book, being mostly descriptive. In a dry, but generally accessible fashion, Strauss takes us from the interstellar medium to quasars and supermassive black holes.

Finally we get to Richard Gott's section, 'Einstein and the Universe'. This the heaviest section of a literally heavy book (1.35 kilograms - get the Kindle version), but in some ways the most satisfying. Gott is not a great explainer, and does perpetuate the myth that Wheeler named the black hole (a common enough misunderstanding 10 years ago, but generally done away with by now), however he gives us a brisk introduction to special and general relativity (John Gribbin would not be impressed that he refers to 'the theory of special relativity'), going on to the implications of these theories for astrophysics and even time travel. Reading Gott is hard work, but it is rewarding. However, this section feels like a completely different book - the first two parts very much fit with the subtitle, 'an astrophysical tour', but the final part is very much physics with astrophysical applications.

Overall, there's a lot going on in this book, with more equations and working out than I've ever seen in a book from a mainstream publisher aimed at a popular science audience. I think it will work well for a segment of that audience - high school students who are already specialising in physics, and regular popular science physics readers who want more depth (provided they can get through the Tyson section). But the book's inconsistent approach and heavy content won't be for everyone.

Review by Brian Clegg

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