Skip to main content

The Cosmic Web - J. Richard Gott ****

This is a book about the large-scale structure of the universe. It’s a subject Richard Gott is particularly well qualified to talk about, having been associated with it since the 1970s. When he was still a graduate student he did pioneering work on the gravitational clumping of galaxies into galaxy clusters. Initially it was believed that this clumping tendency would repeat itself in an ever-ascending hierarchy, with stars clumping into galaxies, galaxies into clusters, clusters into superclusters and so on up to the very largest scales. In time, however, both observational and theoretical work led to a much more complex picture – the ‘cosmic web’ of the book’s title.

Topologically, the universe resembles a giant sea sponge. Unlike the hierarchical model, the high density concentrations of matter (corresponding to the body of the sponge) are not isolated clumps, but a single intricately connected structure. At the same time, the low density ‘voids’ running through it are likewise continuously connected – in contrast to the holes in a Swiss cheese, which was another early model that had to be discarded. Gott was among the first people to recognize the sponge-like structure of the universe – in part because, as a precocious high-school student back in the 1960s, he had done a science fair project on topological models of exactly that kind.

There’s no question that Gott is one of the world’s leading experts in this subject – but is he the best person to write a popular science book about it? I think the answer is a qualified ‘yes’. I really enjoyed his writing style, which is as lucid and unadorned as I’ve ever come across in an academic author. The theory never gets too difficult, either – mainly classical dynamics and statistics, with no relativistic or quantum complications. Nevertheless, Gott is not one of those writers who pretends you can have mathematics-free physics. There are no actual equations (except in the small print at the end of the book), but there are plenty of graphs, Greek letters and powers-of-ten numbers. This is not a book for people who are scared of such things.

At one point, Gott recounts an amusing anecdote he heard from the great Russian physicist Yakov Zeldovich, highlighting the benefits of using the median rather than the mean as a statistical measure. Yet he tells it to the reader exactly the way Zeldovich told it to him – without explaining how the mean and median are defined, or what they are used for. If those things are second nature to you, then you’ll appreciate the anecdote… and you’ll probably enjoy the whole book, too. If not, then you may find it heavy going.

This is the sort of book I would have loved when I was an undergraduate, or possibly even as a mind-stretching read in high school. It’s a young audience of future scientists who will probably get the most out of it today – not just for the picture it paints of how the universe is made, but for its unique inside view of four decades of cutting-edge research.


Review by Andrew May


Popular posts from this blog

Rockets and Rayguns - Andrew May ****

The Cold War period saw dramatic developments in science and technology, coinciding with the flourishing of the science fiction genre. In Rockets and Rayguns, Andrew May draws on the parallels between reality and fiction, each influencing the other.

Inevitably a major Cold War theme was the threat of nuclear war, and May opens with the bomb. It's fascinating that fiction got there first - nuclear weapons were featured in science fiction when many physicists were still doubting the practicality of using nuclear energy. Of course, it's a lot easier to simply take a concept and dream up a weapon than it is to make it for real - for example, H. G. Wells' prophetic nuclear bombs from his 1914 The World Set Free were nothing like the real thing. And some science fiction devices concepts - notably ray guns and force fields - came to very little in reality. However this doesn't prevent the parallels being of interest.

May gives us a mix of the science - describing how nuclear we…

Galileo Galilei, the Tuscan Artist – Pietro Greco ****

Near the beginning of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, he refers to a ‘Tuscan artist’ viewing the Moon through an optic glass. He’s talking about Galileo – one of history’s greatest scientists, but not the most obvious person to slap an ‘artist’ label on. Yet Galileo lived at a time – the Renaissance – when it was fashionable to dabble impartially in both the arts and sciences. Look up ‘Renaissance man’ on Wikipedia and you’ll see Galileo’s picture right there underneath Leonardo da Vinci’s. It’s a less well-known side to his life, but it crops up again and again – interspersed among his many scientific achievements – in this excellent new biography by Pietro Greco.

If you’re looking for interesting trivia, you’ll find plenty in this book. Galileo’s father was a musician with scientific leanings, who carried out some of the first experiments on musical acoustics – which Galileo may have assisted with. As a young professor of mathematics, Galileo delivered a couple of lectures on …

Meet Your Bacteria - Nicola Temple and Catherine Whitlock ***

There have been a good number of books on our microbiome - the bacteria and other tiny organisms living in our body - from The Wild Life of Our Bodies throughI, Superorganism to I Contain Multitudes. Each of these is a traditional popular science book format, and all, to some degree, suffer from the same problem - in part, they have a tendency to present collections of facts, little more than bullet points of information strung together, rather than providing an effective narrative. As Meet Your Bacteria is in a significantly different format, there was a chance to imbue the subject with more dynamism and interest.'

When I first looked at the book, I assumed from its shape and cover that it would be in the style of highly illustrated, two-page spreads with large illustrations and the text little more than captions. In reality, Nicola Temple and Catherine Whitlock manage to subvert that format - it is, indeed, presented as a series of separate two-page spreads, but there is far more…