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Book review: “The Big Questions: The Universe” by Stuart Clark

One of the most surprising and delighting things about writing a blog is that you get emails from readers out of the blue. Some are complimentary, others.. not so much… (I had to look up what a “Noob” was… charming!) Then there are the formal ones that make you realise that not just fellow space geeks are reading your scribblings and rantings…

A few days ago I was asked, by its publisher, if I’d review a new astronomy book. Not the first time this has happened, but it’s not an everyday occurrence either, and it’s quite an honour I think! Also, let’s face it, it’s a chance to get a free book, so who’s going to say no? 🙂

The book in question was “The Big Questions: The Universe”, and when I saw who the author was – Stuart Clark –  I knew I HAD to review it; I’ve “Tweeted” to and with Stuart Clark for, ooh, ages now, and while I can’t claim I know him, or that we’re friends, we do sit on fairly close-together branches in the Great Twitter Tree, so I was very curious to read what he had written.

And any book that is called “The Big Questions” just cries out to be reviewed, doesn’t it? 🙂

So, who is this Stuart Clark guy? Well, his website says…

Stuart Clark is a widely read astronomy journalist. His career is devoted to presenting the complex world of astronomy to the general public. Stuart holds a first class honours degree and a PhD in astrophysics. He is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and a former Vice Chair of the Association of British Science Writers. On 9 August 2000, UK daily newspaper The Independent placed him alongside Stephen Hawking and the Astronomer Royal, Professor Sir Martin Rees, as one of the ‘stars’ of British astrophysics teaching. Currently he divides most of his time between writing books and writing for the European Space Agency in his capacity as senior editor for space science.

…which is all certainly true, but I know him as a Twitterer first and foremost, as an astronomy populariser who spends a lot of time answering – sometimes very patiently! – questions posted online. So when the package thudded onto my doormat I was wondering if his writing style would be as informal and friendly as his Tweets…

Opening the package was – well, I’ll be honest, it was a shock. The book didn’t look anything like I expected. I was expecting, I suppose, a typical 2010 astronomy book, i.e. big, glossy, brassy, a coffee-table busting paper version of AVATAR, i.e. all “gee whizz!” visuals and the bare minimum of script. Ah. No. Shock #1: “Big Questions” is a small book, about the size of a large paperback. And, shock #2: it has… gasp… rounded corners! Rounded corners! Even more unusually the cover is just plain black with lettering. No garish, enhanced-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life Hubble pic, no pics at all, just a plain black book.

And yes, my first thought was “How boring… not a lot of effort there, is there?” but then, after I’d started reading it, the design of the book made perfect sense. Let me tell you why…

You see, this is, and I mean this in the most complimentary way possible, an old-fashioned astronomy book. Most modern astromomy books are the paper equivalents of chavs – they all hang around shops together in their garish jackets, dripping with cheap silver and gold, intimidating passers by with their lack of taste. This book, tho, is a well-dressed gentleman, or lady, walking past the chavs, head held high, comfortable with its own style. This book was meant to slide quietly off a shelf and then nestle comfortably in your hands as you read it in a quiet corner with a glass of wine, rather than thump down onto a coffee table and be read with the help of a crane.

But what about the contents?

The book is clearly intended to be both an introduction to some of the basics of astronomy – asking classic Outreach questions such as “How Did The Universe Begin?”, “How Old Is The Universe?” and “What Was The Big Bang?” – and a one-stop guide to modern thinking on astronomycosmology, covering such brain-liquifying topics as “What Is Dark Matter?”, “Why is 75% Of The Universe A Mystery?” and “Are There Alternative Universes?”

… which presented me with something of a problem, because I have to be honest here: cosmology isn’t my thing. At all. I’m very definitely a “rocks, rockets and rings” guy. I love the planets and planetary exploration, Mars in particular. Show me a picture of a rocky martian landscape and I’m happier than a dog in a lamp post factory. And I’ll watch anything on TV with spaceships in, just because it’s GOT spaceships in… “Button Moon” and “The Clangers” included… So whenever anyone talks or writes about “dark matter”, “dark energy” or “super strings” etc, it leaves me totally cold. I’ve no interest in it, I just haven’t, and I can’t make myself BE interested in it. The only thing “dark” I have an interest in is chocolate. I find absolute, perfect beauty in a stolen glimpse of Saturn’s rings through my humble 4.5″ reflector on a frosty night, but I cannot, for the life of me, get worked up about the latest theories about dark matter and energy. So, a huge chunk of this book isn’t for me.

But it’s a sign of how well it’s written that once I started reading the “hard science” parts of the book, the cosmology-heavy parts, I kept reading. I didn’t get turned on to the subject by them, I’ll admit, but I did understand them a little better, and I could see, after reading them, why other people are so fascinated by that side of astronomy. So, if Stuart Clark makes them interesting subjects even to a die-hard, eyepiece-hogging rock hound like me, people who are already “into” these subjects, or who know nothing about them but want to start learning, will find the book very useful and rewarding, I’m sure 🙂

Stuart Clark is a very good writer, a real “science translator” who is able to take a complicated subject and trim it down to the essentials and basics. He doesn’t do “fluffy” or “dumbed down”,  but treats his readers like adults and with respect. Which the book itself does, too: there are no unnecessary pictures or illustrations, no computer graphic images or “artists impressions” crow-barred in just because they look nice; the artwork is simple, effective and relevent, making “Big Questions; The Universe” a classic example of “no frills” definitely not meaning “no thrills”.

One reason why I liked the book so much was because it’s not just packed with fascinating information about astronomy and cosmology, but it’s studded with nuggets of brilliance in the form of famous – and some not so famous – quotes, too. I loved this quote from Mark Twain: “If the Eiffel Tower were now representing the world’s age, the skin of paint on the pinnacle-knob at its summit would represent man’s share of that age” which was new to me, but I realise now is beloved by scientists…

Another reason why I liked the book so much was a purely selfish one: there are a couple of quotes from – and mentions of – Sir Arthur Eddington in the book, which earned it an extra star from me because, a) I live in Kendal, the town where Eddington was born, and b) Eddington was a brilliant writer and science populariser in his time, one of the first real astronomy “Outreachers” I’ve always thought. And reading this book it struck me that it has a similar tone to Eddington’s works – in fact, it’s the kind of book Eddington would probably be writing if he was around today.

Criticisms? A few: I’d have left out the “Is There Evidence For God?” question, just because it’s such a polarising one – you either believe in God, or you don’t, and a few pages in a book like this won’t sway anyone either way; better to use those pags for tackling a more modern astronomical question, perhaps “Where Could We Find Life In Our Solar System?” And – minor, nit-picky point perhaps, but hey, it’s my blog and my review! – as a writer myself I was less than impressed by the colour used for Stuart Clark’s name on the cover, it’s so dark it’s positively disrespectful! And I would have liked to have seen the subject of extra-solar planets addressed, particularly the hunt for “alien Earths” – that’s one of the most exciting Big Questions of the moment, I think.

But, those minor quibbles aside, I was very impressed by the book, and I’m sure that if he was around today, Eddington would be impressed by this book too, because it’s a book that does exactly what it says on the tin – it looks at some Big Questions and gives the reader the answers. It’s meant to inform, not tittilate, educate and not patronise, and it succeeds on all counts.

3 Responses

  1. Looks like my kind of book.

    Like you, cosmology leaves me cold. I gave up reading the latest theories in New Scientist because it just seemed to be the results of this week’s pub argument using beermats, peanuts and crisps. The bloke who could remember his blather after being chucked out of the pub gets to write it up. Can someone call me when they work it out.

  2. nooo, cosmology doesn’t leave me cold ! dark matter, dark energy, super strings..love them. but i’m not reading this book .this thing about god is unbearable

  3. That’s only one chapter Daniela. Presumably 19 of the 20 chapters will have nothing to do with God. Incidentally I’ve just heard the author speaking on the Guardian’s Science Weekly podcast and I have to say I’m really intrigued by it now, and will definitely be reading it.

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