Skip to main content

The Cosmic Mystery Tour – Nicholas Mee ****

This is another book, like last year’s Enjoy Our Universe by Alvaro de Rújula, that sets out to provide a light-hearted introduction to physics and astrophysics for the general reader. It’s from the same publisher (OUP) and packaged in the same way: as a high quality small-format hardback with 200 glossy pages, the majority of them adorned with colour pictures. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Unlike its predecessor, this new book by Nicholas Mee delivers exactly what it promises.

It’s not that de Rújula’s book was a bad one, but he just wasn’t able to think his way into the reader’s mind. He kept saying ‘physics is fun’, but he was talking about the fun a professional physicist gets out of doing it – which is a very arcane, often highly mathematical, type of fun. The result, for a non-specialist reader, was actually quite alienating. Mee, on the other hand, understands exactly how his readers think, what they find interesting, and the details that – no matter how important they are to physicists – are so abstract they’re best skipped over.

The book’s title, ‘The Cosmic Mystery Tour’, is a highly appropriate one. It really is a whistlestop tour, flitting at breathtaking speed from one idea to the next. There are a couple of dozen main chapters, but each of these is divided into numerous subsections, many of them a page or less in length. Unusually for a book of this type, the narrative is distinctly nonlinear – so, as with any good mystery tour, you never know what’s coming next. 

Opening the book at random, we find Thomas Young and the Rosetta Stone, followed by the double slit experiment, followed by de Broglie’s electron waves, followed by Julian Voss-Andreae’s amazing quantum sculptures, followed by electron microscopes, followed by the Large Hadron Collider. And that all happened in just five pages (pp. 12-16). Here’s another random five-page dip (pp. 138-142): a Chinese earthquake detector from the Han dynasty, gravitational waves, neutron stars, gamma ray bursts, the periodic table and Tutankhamun’s gold mask.

As someone with a notoriously short attention span, I really appreciated Mee’s fast-moving style. It’s a completely different take on the ‘physics is fun’ theme. While de Rújula emphasized that doing physics is fun, Mee makes communicating physics fun. He does it in an impressively eclectic way, too. The illustrations include van Gogh’s Starry Night, the cover of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures (featuring the radio signal from a pulsar) and a scene from John Adams’s opera Doctor Atomic, about Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project.

This is a great book for the target audience – non-specialists looking for a pain-free introduction to the physicist’s view of the universe – but it will also appeal to readers who are already familiar with most of the material, and just want a relaxing and entertaining read for a couple of hours.
Hardback 
Review by Andrew May

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

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 …

Artificial Intelligence - Yorick Wilks ****

Artificial intelligence is one of those topics where it's very easy to spin off into speculation, whether it's about machine conciousness or AI taking over the world (and don't get me onto the relatively rare connection to robots - cover designer please note). All the experience of AI to date has been that it has been made feasible far slower than originally predicted, and that it faces dramatic limitations. So, for example, self-driving cars may be okay in limited circumstances, but are nowhere near ready for the commute home. Similarly, despite all the moves forward in AI technology, computers are so-so at recognising objects after learning from thousands of examples - sometimes fooled by apparently trivial surface patterning - where humans can recognise items from a handful of examples.

Even so, we can't deny that AI is having an influence on our lives and Yorick Wilks, emeritus professor of AI at the University of Sheffield, is ideally placed to give us a picture …

Apollo 11 - David Whitehouse *****

The problem with doing a book about the Apollo programme is that it's hard to find something that hasn't been said before - but with the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing just weeks away, the publication of this elegant book is extremely timely, and science-reporting veteran David Whitehouse manages to make the story feel fresh, even if you're one of the just 20 per cent of the world population who were alive on the remarkable day in 1969.

Although he has worked a lot with New Scientist, Whitehouse was for many years a TV journalist, and that comes through in his impressively engaging prose as he takes us back to the origins of the US/USSR space race that would lead to the moon landing. He passes through the wartime aspects relatively quickly, but once the two superpowers are flexing their space technology muscles, Whitehouse achieves a near perfect balance between the far less-heard USSR side of the story and the US. This is probably the best bit of the whole bo…