Skip to main content

Space Oddities – S. D. Tucker ****

Of all scientific subjects, space is the one that seems to hold the most fascination for non-scientific minds. Think of astrology and the cosy Earth-centred cosmologies of pre-scientific times, or ufology and those tediously regular predictions of cosmic apocalypse today. For the more scientifically minded, such ideas can have an equal and opposite fascination, simply by virtue of their sheer nuttiness. That’s the rationale behind this excellent new book by S. D. Tucker.

One of my all-time favourite books is Patrick Moore’s Can You Speak Venusian?, written in the 1970s. To a first approximation, Tucker’s book can be thought of as a modern-day reworking of that (something Tucker himself acknowledges). In all respects, however, the new book is heavier than its predecessor – it’s more than twice the length, written in a less frivolous style, and much more thoroughly researched and referenced. While there’s overlap in the material – for example flat Earth theories and flying saucer cults – there’s plenty of new stuff too. You can read about the (non-existent) Face on Mars, cosmic visionaries from Theosophists to hippies, and NASA-bashing conspiracy theories such as the idea the Moon landings never happened.

I’ve been a devotee of this sort of wackiness for a long time, yet there’s plenty of stuff in this book that was new to me. To pick just one example – shortly after the rings of Saturn were discovered using the first telescopes in the 17th century, the Keeper of the Vatican Library came up with a theologically satisfying explanation for them. Obviously they were the long-sought foreskin of Jesus Christ, which (having been circumcised) didn’t ascend to Heaven with the rest of him, yet had never been found anywhere on Earth.

If I was giving this book a purely personal rating, I’d unhesitatingly award it the full five stars. For a broader ‘popular science’ audience, however, I’ve dropped that to four stars – if for no other reason than, by the book’s very nature, there isn’t much real science in it. That’s not to say there aren’t any real scientists in it, though. Some of the greatest of them make an appearance with their weirder beliefs – Newton, Kepler, Gauss... as well as the pioneering rocket scientists Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Wernher von Braun.

In keeping with these increasingly polarised, partisan times, Tucker isn’t as tolerant towards his subjects as Moore was back in the 1970s. For me, that’s a plus point – I wouldn’t have been able to sit through some of the nonsense in the book if it had been presented as anything other than nonsense. In particular, I was shocked by how many of these ‘alternative’ views of the cosmos arose from trying to shoe-horn it into the narrow perspective of Earthly politics. How could anyone seriously suggest, for example, that extraterrestrial aliens might be ‘offended’ by NASA’s Pioneer plaque because the two individuals depicted on it are obviously of Caucasian ethnicity? That a present-day academic could do so may strike you as hilarious, or it might strike you as horrifying – but in either case, you’ll find this book a real eye-opener.

Paperback:  

Kindle:  



Review by Andrew May

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

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 …

Artificial Intelligence - Yorick Wilks ****

Artificial intelligence is one of those topics where it's very easy to spin off into speculation, whether it's about machine conciousness or AI taking over the world (and don't get me onto the relatively rare connection to robots - cover designer please note). All the experience of AI to date has been that it has been made feasible far slower than originally predicted, and that it faces dramatic limitations. So, for example, self-driving cars may be okay in limited circumstances, but are nowhere near ready for the commute home. Similarly, despite all the moves forward in AI technology, computers are so-so at recognising objects after learning from thousands of examples - sometimes fooled by apparently trivial surface patterning - where humans can recognise items from a handful of examples.

Even so, we can't deny that AI is having an influence on our lives and Yorick Wilks, emeritus professor of AI at the University of Sheffield, is ideally placed to give us a picture …

Apollo 11 - David Whitehouse *****

The problem with doing a book about the Apollo programme is that it's hard to find something that hasn't been said before - but with the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing just weeks away, the publication of this elegant book is extremely timely, and science-reporting veteran David Whitehouse manages to make the story feel fresh, even if you're one of the just 20 per cent of the world population who were alive on the remarkable day in 1969.

Although he has worked a lot with New Scientist, Whitehouse was for many years a TV journalist, and that comes through in his impressively engaging prose as he takes us back to the origins of the US/USSR space race that would lead to the moon landing. He passes through the wartime aspects relatively quickly, but once the two superpowers are flexing their space technology muscles, Whitehouse achieves a near perfect balance between the far less-heard USSR side of the story and the US. This is probably the best bit of the whole bo…