UNIVERSAL: A guide to the cosmos

By Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw Reviewed by Kevin Kilburn
Penguin Random House 2016280 pages
Price £25 (hbk)ISBN:978-1-846-14436-3


This is the broad outline of the story of the evolution of the universe, from before the Big Bang to the ongoing work with the Large Hadron Collider. It seems a tall order to put before the reader, but the authors are expert in presenting cutting-edge physics to a popular market. Universal is arranged in a logical way: How old are things?; how the Earth was weighed; the distance to the stars; Einstein’s theory of gravity; and the weighing of the Universe. Together with a summary of the evolution of the Universe these and other facts and figures about the cosmos are often glibly thrown around in popular astronomy literature, but how were they determined? This is what Universal sets out to explain.

What makes this book refreshingly different is that the authors employ worked examples, often in the form of side-bars or short interludes of a few pages, to present facts, like the Periodic Table of Elements or to describe the practicalities of how scientists made the measurements. Some, like measuring the distance to Neptune, can even be done by amateur observers. Tales of exploration, like the unfortunate exploits of Frenchman Guillaume Le Gentil, trying to observe a transit of Venus from India in the 1760s, are presented with comments that are apt and often very funny.

At first sight, Universal could be described as a coffee-table book − it is lavishly illustrated and even the cover design is by an award-winning art director, Peter Saville. But it is different from most other astronomy books, being based on demonstrable facts expertly presented in an easy to understand manner. The blurb on the back cover, by Buzz Aldrin, nicely sums it up… ‘I have a sense of wonder about what is out there, just as I did when I was young. There is still much to learn about our universe. Universal will help inspire those who share a fascination with our planets, the solar system and beyond.’

Apart from an obvious typo, ‘doubling the distance to a star reduces its brightness by half’ [it should be a quarter], and the rather heavy-going maths in the worked example describing sound waves propagating in the primordial plasma, this reviewer has no big criticism. Universal is a well presented and very readable book.

Kevin Kilburn is an Hon. Life Member of Manchester Astronomical Society and a regular contributor to the BAA Solar Section. He retired as vice-chairman of the Society for the History of Astronomy in 2015. His interests include lunar, solar and wide-field astrophotography from his home in the Staffordshire moorlands.

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