Skip to main content

Big Bang (Ladybird Expert) - Marcus Chown ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Marcus Chown does a remarkable job at packing in information on the big bang, given only around 25 sides of small format paper to work with. He gives us the concepts, plenty about the cosmic microwave background, plus the likes of dark energy, dark matter, inflation and the multiverse. To be honest, the illustrations were largely pointless, apart from maintaining the format, and it might have been better to have had more text - but I felt the right reader would get more out of this than, say, one of Carlo Rovelli's more florid titles.

Who is the right reader? Although the book is apparently aimed at adults, I'd say intelligent year 6s and above. For adults it is very much a beginner's primer, and the reader might feel a touch patronised, especially by those illustrations, which sometimes suffer from the same kind of hilarious literalism as the old Top of the Pops dance group, Pan's People. I was particularly taken by the picture for 'Afterglow of creation.' To begin with I couldn't understand why it showed a glowing woman, dressed in black, floating in space. Then I realised the text said 'its brightness would vary with energy like a glowing body, paradoxically known as a "black body". She was, it seems, a demonstration of black body radiation.

Although Chown does get a remarkable amount in such a tiny space, there are a couple of occasions when it results in over-simplification or confusion. This is most notable with inflationary theory. Firstly the inflation after the big bang is stated as fact, despite there being growing concern about the validity of the theory. As current best accepted theory, it definitely should have been presented, but perhaps ought to have been qualified. Then the next page deals with the decidedly more speculative concept of eternal inflation, but doesn't make it clear this is something extra. Another example - on page 26, Chown rightly says 'The fireball picture painted by the term Big Bang is wrong in almost every respect.' Yet he opens the book by saying 'Around 13.82 billion years ago all matter, energy, space - and even time - erupted into being in a titanic fireball called the Big Bang.' It's not entirely consistent.

While there are some negatives, they are imposed by the format. Because of Chown's writing, I think this book is worthy of four stars for the right audience. Think of it as a popular science amuse bouche, to get the appetite whetted. And as such, for the true beginner, it does a good job.

Hardback:  

Kindle:  


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…

Bodyology - Mosaic Science ****

It's a good sign when you pick up a book intending to read one chapter and end up reading three. It's very moreish. This is because it's made up of short, self-contained articles, originally published on a website. Often an edited collection of articles by different authors suggests a boring read, but here the articles are good pieces of journalism with plenty to interest the reader.

The topics are all vaguely human body related, but thankfully not all medical (not my favourite subject) - so, for example, as well as stories of a person cured of Lyme disease by bee stings or a piece on miscarriages we get topics like the effects on the body of being struck by lightning or falling from a high place. Even some more explicitly health-related matters, such as the impact of losing your sense of smell, were engaging enough to get me past my medical squeamishness.

The only reason I can't give the collection five stars is because of one aspect of the writing style that runs throu…