Thursday, June 14, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Catching up with the universe

From MIT: BOOK REVIEW: Catching up with the universe

How it Began
By Chris Impey
W.W. Norton
March 2012

I grew up in the Panamanian countryside, under pristine skies bursting with stars. Defenseless against the nightly spectacle, I had no choice but to become a backyard astronomer. A Spanish translation of Isaac Asimov’s The Universe (1966) transformed a romantic interest in constellations into a healthy scientific understanding of the cosmos. Asimov’s tome, although dated, satisfied my thirst for cosmological knowledge long enough for me to shift my attention to more mundane things. Two decades went by until I discovered — with a mix of delight and trepidation — that while I was not looking, a third revolution in cosmology, by no means smaller than those triggered by Copernicus and Hubble, was taking place right under my nose, during my lifetime.

Obscure and puzzling terms, such as dark matter and dark energy, were now ubiquitous in a discussion that I no longer recognized as familiar and that — much to my dismay — I was no longer able to follow with confidence. The good old Big Bang I was familiar with had now been revised and expanded to include exotic concepts such as an inflationary stage, an accelerating rate of expansion, and the possibility that our whole universe may be only a tiny part of a bubbling multiverse, explainable by means of microscopic vibrating strings. Ouch! Eager to catch up with the fantastic new questions and findings of the ongoing third cosmological revolution, I searched again for an instructive and entertaining book that could do for me now what Asimov’s book had done 20 years earlier.

Alas! A pilgrimage through the pages of a dozen books, each with diverse strength and shortcomings, was necessary for me to catch up with our current understanding of the universe. After the effort, I do feel confident, again, that — while still a layman — I am no longer an ignoramus in regard to current cosmological questions. Interestingly, the process of educating myself in these matters left in me the impression that the whole exercise had been terribly inefficient. The common person deserved — I thought — to have an up-to-date summary of the current understanding of the universe, presented in accessible language, and in a single comprehensive book.

Chris Impey’s latest work may be that book. If it is not, at least it comes closer to that ideal than any other volume I have seen in a long while. Let me put it in these terms: if I had to recommend a single book today to a friend wanting to learn the basics of what’s out there, Impey’s How It Began would be my first choice. Ambitious in its scope, up-to-date in its content, accessible in its exposition and pleasantly poetic in its execution, the book is an imaginative yet scientifically grounded promenade through the cosmos, which starts next door with a fact-packed (and fascinating!) look at the Moon and ends up, past the beginning of time and space, with speculation about the Multiverse.

But How It Began is more than a crash-course on modern cosmology: it is a sort of epic narrative about the human quest to understand the universe, to bring it within reach, and to find our place in it. It includes not only concepts from astronomy and cosmology, but also nuggets of knowledge from other fields that help put them in an interesting context. The whole volume seems designed to blow you out of the water. And it delivers. Some passages - like the description of the space race — read like a thriller, while others (such as the description of a desolate moonscape in Europa) read like a poem. Every page packs a punch, every paragraph presents a surprising fact, a memorable analogy, or an interesting anecdote. A sense of awe and marvel seems to permeate it all, as if Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe had been rewritten in the style of Richard Dawkins’s The Magic of Reality.

Impey’s work is a far cry from the formulaic books on popular science that present findings in a chronological fashion, mere recollections of whose ideas replaced whose. Instead it is thoroughly original. It feels like a conversation in a cafe with an old and dear friend, who happens to be brilliant and engaging, versed in all things related to space and time. Refreshingly, Impey is unafraid to employ wildly diverse cultural, historical, even mythical references — as well as personal anecdotes — where they are less expected as long as they help convey the ‘wow’ factor of an explanation. Some visualizations that border on science fiction, as well as abundant quotations from thinkers of all epochs, have been used to good effect throughout the text. Undoubtedly an expert in his field, Impey is also a bit of a dreamer, a bit of a poet, and a lot of fun. This book, which takes strongly after its author, is — in my opinion — an entertaining and illuminating tour de force, which deserves to be read and savored slowly. For it is clearly a work of love.

No comments:

Post a Comment