Reviewed by Annabel
I’ve always loved books about space and I still have my beloved Hamlyn guides on Astronomy and Exploring the Planets by Iain Nicholson from 1970 that got me started. Not that I’ve ever been any more than an occasional astronomer, but I do enjoy a good popular science look at our universe.
This book gave me a super refresher and update, and will also be a great introduction to astronomy for teens upwards as a compact overview of the subject. It takes us from the early watchers of the skies to where we are now in our understanding of the universe, with sufficient detail to pique interest without overdoing the technical stuff.
Newsam is currently Professor of Astronomy Education and Engagement at Liverpool John Moores University, where the National Schools Observatory is based. He graduated in cosmology and gained much experience in observational astronomy and, as his job title suggests, is a keen science communicator.
He begins by encouraging the reader to look up at the sky, pointing out a few of the things we can see, engaging both our innate curiosity and sense of wonder. We all, of course, are made of stardust, literally: that thought alone is enough to garner my interest and awe at the scale of the universe, topics he will address later in the book.
Our journey commences ‘Looking out from Earth’ and marvelling at the beauty which ‘is one of the richest joys of being an astronomer,’ but also at the excitement from finding something new. He explains that:
astronomy stands slightly outside the other sciences. During the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment – while what we now call physics, chemistry and biology were making rapid leaps as increasingly sophisticated experiments were devised – astronomical research still came down to a simple question: can we explain what we see when we look up at the sky at night?
The vast majority of science is driven by experimentation. … Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t really work for astronomy. … Astronomy, therefore, is not so much experimental as it is about seeing, observing – about looking up.
Following chapters look at the Sun, the Solar System, stars, galaxies and The Big Bang, followed by a useful appendix with facts and figures to help with scale in particular. There are occasional diagrams and graphs dotted in the text plus a short section of colour plates showing various phenomena, including some of those amazing photos from the Hubble Space Telescope. Whilst the Hubble photographs are beautiful, he saves the most amazing one for the last plate. The Hubble Ultra Deep Field shows what could be mistaken for a sky full of stars, but each of the points here are entire galaxies and the light from them has taken billions of years to reach the telescope. Now that is mind-blowing!
Although I consider myself reasonably well-read for an armchair enthusiast in terms of the Big Bang and the Solar System, I was delighted to encounter new concepts and terms, such as ‘space weather’ – the effects of the Sun’s coronal mass ejections of plasma, which cause aurorae and can affect our magnetic field and satellite transmissions etc. Also I learned about the miniscule force on everything that is called ‘photon pressure’ – literally ‘the gentle push of light hitting things.’ It is postulated that this effect could be harnessed to affect the spin of a near-Earth-object deflecting it from hitting us, by painting one side of the asteroid with a reflective light paint. None of the methods in the movies such as Deep Impact have any real chance of working! Gas giants and white dwarf stars, neutron stars, pulsars, quasars, black holes, dark matter and dark energy all get discussed too.
Alongside the main text are some biographical boxes of some of the most important figures in the development of astronomy. I bet you didn’t know that Edwin Hubble could have been a heavyweight boxing world champ had his studies not taken him to Oxford from the USA? These light-hearted biographies and quotations from many astronomers, including Stephen Hawking, Dame Jocelyn Bell-Burnell (who discovered neutron stars – but her name was left off the Nobel citation as she was a student at the time – her boss won the prize!) amongst many others add a human side to that cosmological.
Newsam’s explanations are clearly stated, with flashes of humour to lighten the science where appropriate, and there is no room for waffle, although he does sometimes wax philosophical. He is clearly an excellent educator in his subject, but most of all he hasn’t lost his own sense of wonder at the existence of the universe and all within it. That latter quality in particular made this book a real pleasure to read.
Annabel is one of the Shiny editors and as a materials scientist by training, likes being made of stardust.
Andrew Newsam, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Universe (Elliot & Thompson, 2020). 978-1783962600, 208pp., flapped paperback original.
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