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.



Review by Andrew May


Popular posts from this blog

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…

The Cosmic Mystery Tour – Nicholas Mee ****

This is another book, like last year’s Enjoy Our Universe by Alvaro de Rújula, that sets out to provide a light-hearted introduction to physics and astrophysics for the general reader. It’s from the same publisher (OUP) and packaged in the same way: as a high quality small-format hardback with 200 glossy pages, the majority of them adorned with colour pictures. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Unlike its predecessor, this new book by Nicholas Mee delivers exactly what it promises.

It’s not that de Rújula’s book was a bad one, but he just wasn’t able to think his way into the reader’s mind. He kept saying ‘physics is fun’, but he was talking about the fun a professional physicist gets out of doing it – which is a very arcane, often highly mathematical, type of fun. The result, for a non-specialist reader, was actually quite alienating. Mee, on the other hand, understands exactly how his readers think, what they find interesting, and the details that – no matter how important they …

Professor Maxwell's Duplicitous Demon - Brian Clegg ****

‘It’s not uncommon when trying to give Maxwell his rightful place in the pantheon of physics to bracket him with Newton and Einstein’, Brian Clegg says towards the end of this book. In one sense that’s perfectly true. Dip into any physics textbook and you’ll see Maxwell’s name at least as often as the other two. His greatest achievement – Maxwell’s equations – did for electromagnetism what Newton had done for gravity, while laying the essential theoretical groundwork for everything Einstein was to do.

There’s a big difference, though. A few years ago, when I was offered the chance to write short biographies of Newton and Einstein, I jumped at it – because they addressed mysteries of the universe that anyone can relate to, and their lives outside physics were, if anything, even more fascinating. At the risk of sounding downright rude, you can’t say either of those things about James Clerk Maxwell. In spite of that, Brian Clegg has done a wonderful job here of recounting just what Maxwel…