Skip to main content

Our Universe: Jo Dunkley ****

 A book that does pretty much what it says on the tin, providing an 'astronomer's guide' to the universe. Jo Dunkley does so in an approachable, non-technical style, generally speaking not doing anything that a number of other such guides haven't done in the past (all the way back to the likes of Patrick Moore), but with good up-to-date content. And without going over the top on the physics, there's a fair amount of astrophysics as well, from the mechanics of stars to dark matter and dark energy.

If the book has a USP other than being up to date, it is in its claim to give us 'the electrifying story of the deep history, latest science and forgotten women who illuminate our understanding of the cosmos.' I don't think Dunkley's calm writing style can really be described as electrifying, but I'd certainly agree that the science and deep history is up-to-date. Dunkley is at her best when either bringing out some small detail - I love her description of the future of the star Betelgeuse, and the cover image is another good one, showing the relative size of the Sun and the Earth - or when she's delving into the expansion of space, which she handles particularly well. There's also another excellent and rarely mentioned example in the interesting observation that multiple images caused by gravitational lensing will give views of a location from different points in time.

There is a bit of a problem with the 'forgotten women' part, though. Female astronomers such as Henrietta Swann Leavitt, Cecilia Payne-Gaspschkin, Vera Rubin and Annie Jump Cannon certainly could have been described as providing 'previously-overlooked stories of pioneering astronomers' 20 years ago, but I haven't read a single good astronomy book in recent years that didn't give them their full due. Accordingly it reads slightly oddly when Dunkley only gives biographies to her female selection, but doesn't do so for, say, Hubble. There also seems a bit of a bias towards US women - Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, for example, is mentioned does not warrant a biography. This US bias (strange from a Pelican book) comes across also in the use of units, where bizarrely, when not employing astronomical units, distances are given in miles or inches (except for one example where centimetres are used).

The only real disappointment in science content was over dark matter where in a whole chapter on the topic, all of a page is given over to modified gravity, only to pretty much dismiss it by giving an example where dark matter fits but MOND doesn't (the Bullet cluster) without mentioning the various factors (galactic rotations curves, for example) where modified gravity works better than dark matter. We might have expected, after so many failures to find dark matter candidates, that a more balanced approach would be taken.

Overall, though, an excellent purchase for a beginner who wants to get a feel for modern astronomy.

Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The Hidden Half - Michael Blastland *****

Michael Blastland is co-author of one of my favourite titles on the use and misuse of numbers, The Tiger that Isn't - so I was excited to see this book and wasn't disappointed.

Blastland opens with the story of a parthenogenic crustacean that seems to demonstrate that, despite having near-identical nature and nurture, a collection of the animals vary hugely in size, length of life and practically every other measure. This is used to introduce us to the idea that our science deals effectively with the easy bit, the 'half' that is accessible, but that in many circumstances there is a hidden half that comprises a whole range of very small factors which collectively can have a huge impact, but which are pretty much impossible to predict or account for. (I put 'half' in inverted commas as it might be fairer to say 'part' - there's no suggestion that this is exactly 50:50.)

We go on to discover this hidden half turning up in all kinds of applications of …

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 …

Bloom - Ruth Kassinger ***

There is much fascinating material in this chunky book by Ruth Kassinger. It may be my total ignorance of biology and everyone else knows these things, but I learnt so much - for example that seaweed is algae and not a plant, about algae's role in the development of land plants, about the algae in lichen and its contribution to coral reefs.

The book is divided into four broad sections: on the origins and development of algae, on algae (and particularly seaweed) as food, on making use of algae, for example, for biofuel, and on algae and climate change, particularly the bleaching of coral and algal blooms. This is all done in a very approachable writing style, mixing descriptive material that is never over-technical with narrative often featuring visits to different locations and to talk to a range of experts from those who study to algae to those who cook them.

There are two problems though. Firstly, the book is too long at 380 pages. Each section could do with a trim, but this wa…