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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.

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Review by Andrew May

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