Skip to main content

Ripples in Spacetime - Govert Schilling ***

The only example of Govert Schilling's work I'd come across was his co-authorship of the quirky but ultimately unsatisfying Tweeting the Universe, so it was interesting to see a 'proper' book by him on the timely topic of gravitational waves.

I struggled a little with his writing style - it's very jerky, jumping from one topic to another in a kind of popular science stream of consciousness, but once I got used to it, there is no doubt that he gives a thorough non-technical picture not only of gravitational waves themselves, but all kinds of background material from Einstein's biography to aspects of general relativity that really don't have much to do with gravitational waves. In a sense this a curse of the topic - because gravitational wave astronomy is so new (at the time of writing fewer than 4 confirmed observations) there's a limit to how much there is to write about.

What Schilling does well is the science explanation. His description of gravitational waves themselves is the best I've seen anywhere, and he gives us plenty of information on the process that led to LIGO (the observatories that have made the discoveries). He's also good on the way the availability of gravitational wave data has the potential to expand the abilities of astronomers.

Less satisfactory is the history of science. I know popular science author John Gribbin would be squirming at the repeated use of 'Einstein's theory of general relativity' (it should be general theory of relativity), but this, for me, was a lesser error than some of the historical misinformation. We're told that Aristotle proposed the 'first model of the universe' - but there were plenty around earlier, such as Anaximander's, predating Aristotle by around 150 years. Equally we're told that 'Lipperhey' invented the telescope. Leaving aside his name being Lippershey, we know for certain he didn't as he attempted to patent it and failed because of prior claims (not to mention the Digges's work in the UK etc.) And, bizarrely, Schilling tells us that Einstein got the idea of a fixed speed for light from Michelson-Morley, rather than Maxwell.

Luckily there's only a relatively small part of the book that is history of science and, as mentioned, the parts explaining the science are much better. The description of Weber bars, the building of LIGO and the battles involved along the way are told much more engagingly in Black Hole Blues, but if it's just the science parts you want, this is a good one to go for.

Hardback:  


Kindle:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty. The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science. Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a n

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under