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 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…