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.

Paperback:  

Kindle:  



Review by Andrew May

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…

Bodyology - Mosaic Science ****

It's a good sign when you pick up a book intending to read one chapter and end up reading three. It's very moreish. This is because it's made up of short, self-contained articles, originally published on a website. Often an edited collection of articles by different authors suggests a boring read, but here the articles are good pieces of journalism with plenty to interest the reader.

The topics are all vaguely human body related, but thankfully not all medical (not my favourite subject) - so, for example, as well as stories of a person cured of Lyme disease by bee stings or a piece on miscarriages we get topics like the effects on the body of being struck by lightning or falling from a high place. Even some more explicitly health-related matters, such as the impact of losing your sense of smell, were engaging enough to get me past my medical squeamishness.

The only reason I can't give the collection five stars is because of one aspect of the writing style that runs throu…