Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Book Review: "Big Questions - The Universe" by Stuart Clark

I'd better start this post by declaring an interest.

A few months ago I was contacted out of the blue by a friendly lady named Marta from Flint PR, inviting me to review a book, and asking me if I knew of any more bloggers who'd like to review it. I'm always up for getting a free book in exchange for writing a review, so I naturally said yes and alerted my astroblogging friends. I fear that by now she'll have put me on the blacklist as someone who nicks their books and doesn't carry out her promises, as I was probably supposed to do this in July - and you know what it's like, the guiltier you feel the worse it gets, like writing birthday thank you letters. Anyway, Marta, look, I've done it - though I'll understand if you don't want to bother with me again!

The book was from the "The Big Questions" series, subtitled "The Universe"; the others (so far) are Philosophy, Physics and Mathematics. I declare a subsidary interest: it's by Stuart Clark, who also wrote The Sun Kings and of whom I am a great fan. He's a very friendly and interactive Twitterer, happy to answer questions and generally a very encouraging sort of person.

He's divided up the topic into 20 questions, ranging from the obvious "What is the Universe?" to the basic "Why doesn't the Moon fall down?" to the contemporary "Why is 75% of the Universe a mystery?" to the uncertain "Do other intelligent beings exist?" to the downright brave "Is there evidence for God?" He chose the questions himself. You can see more of them in the link above.

Now, if you ask for my opinion, I'll give you my opinion - as some people have been rather shocked to find out. My opinion on the design and format of this book is that it is ghastly. The cover is made of that criss-cross stuff you get on nasty cheap folders. The pages are rounded at the edges, looking like a dreaded office diary, and smaller in the middle, so you can't riffle through them. There is no space between the heading of a subsection and the first paragraph, but there are spaces between the paragraphs. (This blog does that automatically too. I hate it.) The introduction paragraphs and the diagrams aren't aligned with the text and huge areas of paper are wasted, which does my eyes in. Stuart has inserted beautiful, illuminating, carefully chosen quotations to go here and there in chapters, and those appear in boxes with only the corners showing, as if the words are trying to burst out like parasites and escape.

Well, I did warn you. (Cumbrian Sky has more positive comments about the book's appearance if you want balance!) I suppose it would suit an ashamed closet astronomer who wants his or her colleagues to think they're reading something else. However, may I also add that this is a good moment to mention not judging a book by its cover?

Because it's a gorgeous book! It focusses heavily on the facts, the science, rather than trying to awe us with pictures. It presents the science that's been discovered so far, as well as what we don't yet know. Sometimes Stuart starts a chapter with a historical anecdote. Other chapters he starts by setting out the basics, or describing a method of measuring something to do with the question. You get a very gentle introduction to each issue, even when the issue itself (and the rest of the chapter) is enough to make your head spin.

The book is not afraid of uncharted territory (as scientists say, if you know what you're doing, it's not research). Kepler invented his laws of planetary motion before we knew what caused the planets to move. Pauli invented the neutrino, as Stuart writes, as "a desperate remedy" to account for lost mass in nuclear fusion - twenty-six years later, neutrinos were discovered. Stuart discusses dark matter and dark energy, but also modified Newtonian dynamics, "quintessence", and the idea of overturning the cosmological principle, as means to account for the 96% of mass that we cannot see and the expanding acceleration of the Universe. I can't pretend to have understood it all, but the nice thing with this book is that it's broken up into lots of little chunks you can go back to several times. Actually, that's one thing that kept me reading it for so long. I kept going back and looking at things again. Although each section is independent of the others (there's very little "see such-and-such a chapter" business), my mind got a lot clearer when I re-read and re-re-re-re-read, trying to take difficult concepts in.

There's a great variety of subject matter. In the chapter "Are we made from stardust?" we get taken into the world of biology, of the definition of life, of the intricate complexities of amino acids, of experiments and fireballs and meteorites and uncertainty. So taken in, in fact, that the "stardust" bit, of which we are reminded at the end, comes as a bit of a jolt.

One chapter really threw me and left me feeling very frustrated: "Can the laws of physics change?" We began with the story of cave in Gabon which is, as far as I know, the site of the only natural nuclear reaction that ever took place on Earth. I remembered a very pro-nuclear power lecturer at university telling us about that site, remarking that the products of the reaction haven't moved since (therefore, his point was, nuclear power is safe). How the uranium built up due to being carried along by water and deposited, and why it set off a chain reaction, was clear - until this bit:
The nature of the nuclear reaction appeared to have changed and that could only happen if the laws of physics had changed too. Research conducted in 2004 showed that the strength of the force governing the nuclear reaction in Oklo had been different by a tiny amount, less than five parts in 100 million, from what it is today.
That's all we learn - unless I've managed to miss the explanation every time I read the book (possible, I suppose). What aspect of the nature of the nuclear reaction had changed? What laws of physics had changed? What force governing the nuclear reaction? Different how? I'm hardly going to care what year the research took place in if I don't know that, or who did the research or what they were doing or what they found, am I?

And yet even from that paragraph you'll probably see how clear and easy Stuart's style is, how gently he takes us along - his text is not hideously condensed or full of jargon; he doesn't rush us; he explains exactly what he's talking about. Except in this one chapter, and one out of twenty isn't much to complain about. In any case, he's spurred me on to try and find out for myself, which if I was a bit less lazy I might have done by now.

I think some reviewers have wondered what the chapter "Is there evidence for God?" is doing in that book, but I found it very useful. It goes into the dilemma of exactly how fine-tuned the Universe is for life. There are a lot of terrifyingly exact coincidences that have allowed matter to exist, and carbon and oxygen to form readily in stars, and solids to form . . . But would slightly different conditions, perhaps, have been even more suitable for life, perhaps a different sort? Are there a lot of alternative universes which have these different conditions? As Stuart explains, the Universe keeps throwing surprises at us, and showing us systems (such as Jupiter-sized planets orbiting very close to their stars) which we thought were impossible - perhaps similar surprises will come on the subject of life. There is a lot we don't know yet. But Stuart clearly sets out what we do know, and there is definitely plenty to please both sides!

I'd recommend this book to anyone who knows a bit of physics and cosmology - and especially to those many people who know enough to start thinking up lots of fancy theories but have no way of testing them, other than to appear on the Internet and usually get refuted by scary mathematics they don't understand. Actually, I'd recommend it to anyone who likes reading astronomy but doesn't get much time, as it's perfect for dipping into and out of, or to anyone with lots of niggling questions and uncertainties. There's plenty I still feel I don't know after reading it, but that is of course always the way.

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