Mysteries of the Universe: Answerable & unanswerable questions

By Peter Altman Reviewed by Philip Jennings
Altman Publishing 2021304 pages
Price £9.99ISBN:978-1-86036-062-6

It is often observed that every answer in astrophysics yields still more questions. By this reckoning, the mysteries of the Universe are less the quarry of scientists and more their tormentors: an infinite series of multiplying riddles without answer. But astrophysicists enjoy a good puzzle. Each new question is a reminder that much of the pleasure in science comes from the journey rather than the destination, whatever that destination may be.

Peter Altman is one such lover of the unknown and unknowable. In Mysteries of the Universe, he has fittingly produced a question-and-answer book with more questions than answers. With humour and theatrical flourish – befitting of an author who is apparently a member of the Magic Circle – he addresses one question per chapter, in a whirlwind of astronomy, philosophy, theology, cosmology, history, biochemistry (his own specialism) and even science fiction. (A fun and relevant sci-fi story hidden at the book’s end is a welcome ‘Easter egg’).

It is no great spoiler to reveal that chapters devoted to such questions as ‘Do other universes exist?’ and ‘Is time travel possible?’ inevitably conclude with the typed equivalent of a shrug, but much satisfaction may be derived from the lively and engaging discussions along the way. Others – such as one on the veracity of astrology – come to rather more certain conclusions.

The author bounces from one field to another with Tigger-like enthusiasm, and it perhaps goes without saying that the advanced reader will find elsewhere more in-depth treatments of the topics covered. However, the restless energy seems appropriate to a book which is a celebration of curiosity. Peppered with references to papers, books and online articles, it also acts as an effective springboard for further reading.

Although a few images appear pixelated at the scale reproduced – a common problem in modern astronomy books – none of these cases especially affected my enjoyment of the book. Richly illustrated and with a helpful index, it is also a handy size. Your reviewer took to reading a chapter before going to bed, and while an unanswerable quandary may be considered an unsatisfying bedtime story by some, to those who love to ask questions, it is a recipe for happy dreams. This book would make a good gift for those with an interest in ‘the big questions’.

A keen visual observer of the Moon and planets, Philip Jennings is an astronomy writer, speaker and consultant. He sits on the BAA Council and is Editor of the Journal.

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