Skip to main content

Welcome to the Universe - Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael Strauss, Richard Gott ***

One of the first things a writer is encouraged to do is to be aware of his or her audience. I think it's interesting that this book, like many written by physicists, mostly has comments on the back from physicists, because the book is written as if they were the audience. Not as serious reading - more the equivalent of a heavy literary fiction reader indulging in a bit of Agatha Christie for light relief. The trouble is that this isn't the audience it's supposed to be for. To make things worse, each of the three authors pitches their writing differently.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is his usual ebullient self, using a style that mixes the shouty with a touch of condescension. However, his content is more detailed than usual with a strong smattering of equations - enough that this sometimes feels like an introductory textbook. The opening has something of the manic 'space is really big' approach of the Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but then settles down to a quick rattle through '3,000 years of astronomy.' However, to ensure it's not too interesting he also tells us that he is not going to include details of people and discoveries. To be fair, this may be because Tyson has been slated in the past for poor history of science.

Despite the style, Tyson manages a reasonable balance of general observation and introduction of physical concepts. There is one odd chapter, about the demotion of Pluto from a planet which doesn't fit with the rest at all - it seems a bit of a vanity project for Tyson - but the rest fits together quite well. We've already come across Michael Strauss in this first section on 'stars, planets and life' as he interposes a few chapters amongst Tyson's, but he comes into his own in the second, shortest section, 'galaxies'. This is probably the least technical section of the book, being mostly descriptive. In a dry, but generally accessible fashion, Strauss takes us from the interstellar medium to quasars and supermassive black holes.

Finally we get to Richard Gott's section, 'Einstein and the Universe'. This the heaviest section of a literally heavy book (1.35 kilograms - get the Kindle version), but in some ways the most satisfying. Gott is not a great explainer, and does perpetuate the myth that Wheeler named the black hole (a common enough misunderstanding 10 years ago, but generally done away with by now), however he gives us a brisk introduction to special and general relativity (John Gribbin would not be impressed that he refers to 'the theory of special relativity'), going on to the implications of these theories for astrophysics and even time travel. Reading Gott is hard work, but it is rewarding. However, this section feels like a completely different book - the first two parts very much fit with the subtitle, 'an astrophysical tour', but the final part is very much physics with astrophysical applications.

Overall, there's a lot going on in this book, with more equations and working out than I've ever seen in a book from a mainstream publisher aimed at a popular science audience. I think it will work well for a segment of that audience - high school students who are already specialising in physics, and regular popular science physics readers who want more depth (provided they can get through the Tyson section). But the book's inconsistent approach and heavy content won't be for everyone.


Hardback:  

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Grace Lindsay - Four Way Interview

Grace Lindsay is a computational neuroscientist currently based at University College, London. She completed her PhD at the Centre for Theoretical Neuroscience at Columbia University, where her research focused on building mathematical models of how the brain controls its own sensory processing. Before that, she earned a bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience from the University of Pittsburgh and received a research fellowship to study at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Freiburg, Germany. She was awarded a Google PhD Fellowship in Computational Neuroscience in 2016 and has spoken at several international conferences. She is also the producer and co-host of Unsupervised Thinking , a podcast covering topics in neuroscience and artificial intelligence. Her first book is Models of the Mind . Why science? I started my undergraduate degree as a neuroscience and philosophy double major and I think what drew me to both topics was the idea that if we just think rigorously enou

A Citizen's Guide to Artificial Intelligence - John Zerilli et al ****

The cover of this book set off a couple of alarm bells. Not only does that 'Citizen's Guide' part of the title raise the spectre of a pompous book-length moan, the list of seven authors gives the feel of a thesis written by committee. It was a real pleasure, then, to discover that this is actually a very good book. I ought to say straight away what it isn't - despite that title, it isn't a book written in a style that's necessarily ideal for a general audience. Although the approach is often surprisingly warm and human, it is an academic piece of writing. As a result, in places it's a bit of a trudge to get through it. Despite this, though, the topic is important enough - and, to be fair, the way it is approached is good enough - that it deserves to be widely read. John Zerilli et al give an effective, very balanced exploration of artificial intelligence. Although not structured as such, it's a SWOT analysis, giving us the strengths, weaknesses, opportun

The Science of Can and Can't - Chiara Marletto *****

Without doubt, Chiara Marletto has achieved something remarkable here, though the nature of the topic does not make for an easy read. The book is an attempt to popularise constructor theory - a very different approach to physics, which Oxford quantum physicist David Deutsch has developed with Marletto. Somewhat oddly, the book doesn't use the term constructor theory, but rather the distinctly clumsier 'science of can and can't'. The idea is that physics is formulated in a way that is inherently limited because it depends on using mechanisms that follows the progress of dynamic systems using the laws of physics. This method isn't applicable in circumstances where either something may happen, but won't necessarily, nor where something isn't allowed to happen (hence the science of can and can't, which probably should be the science of could and can't if we are going to be picky). Deutsch and Marletto have proposed a way of using 'counterfactuals'