In the early days of the universe, there was darkness. Until somebody said, “let there be light”? Not quite. In First Light, astrophysicist Emma Chapman introduces you to ongoing research into the first billion years of our Universe and the birth of the first stars. Popular science at its finest, this book challenged me pleasantly but was above all—with apologies for the terrible pun—enlightening.
After three previous books in this format on fossils, rocks, and dinosaurs, geologist and palaeontologist Donald R. Prothero here tackles the story of evolution in 25 notable discoveries. More so than the previous trio, this book tries to be a servant to two masters, resulting in a mixed bag.
Life most likely originated in the oceans, and it is to oceans that astronomers are looking to find life elsewhere in the universe. With the publication last year of Kevin Peter Hand’s Alien Oceans, I decided this was the right time to finally review Ocean Worlds, a book that I have been very keen to read ever since buying it some years ago. This, then, is the first of a two-part dive into the story of oceans on Earth and elsewhere.
The images that astronomers produce can shape whole generations. Based on the Pale Blue Dot photo taken by the Voyager 1 space probe, Carl Sagan’s moving speech in Cosmos highlighted how small and insignificant we appear in the vastness of the universe. But we are not alone, being part of the solar system which is part of the Milky way galaxy. And ours is but one of billions, possibly trillions, of galaxies in the universe that, interestingly, are not scattered at random in space. In this compact and engagingly written book, French cosmographer Hélène Courtois shows you the next level up: superclusters. When it was published in 2014, the image of the supercluster to which our galaxy belongs for me was another one of those generation-defining images. It was of such stunning beauty that it stopped me in my tracks. Welcome to Laniakea, our home amidst the stars.
Did life arise merely by accident? Many scientists feel uncomfortable with talk of goal-directedness and greater plans, as it reeks more of religion and theology than rational explanation. And with creationists lurking, the risk of “smuggling God in through the back door” under scientific pretences (as Richard Dawkins put it) is something to be wary of. Without descending into this territory, Universe in Creation might skirt dangerously close to it for some. In turns lyrical, unsettling, and, yes, speculative, this book argues that life may be written into the most basic laws of nature.
I guess it was inevitable that in my wider reading on subjects such as astronomy and physics I would eventually bump into quantum mechanics. Where I have encountered it so far, I have admitted it went straight over my head. It might thus seem foolhardy for a biologist to try and tackle a book like this. Then again, the hallmark of good communicators is that they make complex topics understandable. And theoretical physicist Sean Carroll’s previous books have been lauded, some even winning prizes. Are you ready to get down and dirty with quantum mechanics?
When the movie Interstellar was released in 2014, I thought its depiction of a black hole was one of the most hauntingly beautiful scenes. And with input from prominent astrophysicist Kip Thorne, there was plenty of science to this piece of science fiction (see The Science of Interstellar). Amazingly, we only had to wait five more years for an actual image of a black hole – or really its event horizon – to be published. But these astounding images have been a long time coming. With Gravity’s Century, science writer Ron Cowen traces the story back to Albert Einstein and provides an accessible and compact overview of the century-long quest in physics to better understand gravity.
How did we get here? It’s a simple question, but as all parents will affirm, the simplest questions can have the most complicated answers. With Quarks to Culture, Tyler Volk, a professor in biology and environmental studies, looks at our human culture and goes all the way back to the beginning (yes, the very beginning) to ask: “Is there a pattern here?”. What follows is a book that should be taken as a spirited thought experiment.
Communicating the complexities and abstractions of scientific findings is not easy. Anyone who has ever slogged through yet another dense paper or muddled presentation will acknowledge this. Our universe, it seems, cares not for the human quest of understanding it. One of the things, then, that makes popular science books such a treat is that they infuse scientific findings and speculation with a certain lyricism and good storytelling. This is why we flock to authors such as Nick Lane, Richard Dawkins, Richard Fortey, and many others besides. This is why Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan remain household names decades after their death. The latter’s Pale Blue Dot segment still gives me goosebumps. With Evolutions: Fifteen Myths That Explain Our World, science historian Oren Harman boldly turns the concept on its head: rather than bringing poetic flair to a pop-science book, he brings scientific flair to an epic poem.