THE BOOK OF UNIVERSES

EXPLORING THE LIMITS OF THE COSMOS

A guided tour of conceptions of the universe, from the beginnings of modern science to the present.

After a brief look at the cosmological ideas of the ancients, Barrow (Mathematical Sciences/Cambridge Univ.; 100 Essential Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know: Math Explains Your World, 2009, etc.) moves on to the more rigorous formulations arising once Newton’s gravitational theory became part of the astronomer’s vocabulary. Both the time scale and the amount of space that theory needs to account for expanded radically over the course of the 19th century, until Edwin Hubble’s discovery of the expansion of the universe presented cosmology with a key data point. Even Einstein had to adapt his original idea of a static universe to Hubble’s observations by adding a fudge factor to General Relativity, the infamous cosmological constant. By that point, others were calculating what kinds of universe Einstein’s laws permitted. After Karl Schwarzschild pointed out that the universe need not conform to Euclidean geometry, alternative models proliferated: Willem de Sitter, Georges Lemaître and the Russian mathematician Alexander Friedmann found ways to tweak the known variables to find possible universes. But the expansion of the universe implied a beginning, a position developed in the 1940s by George Gamow and his associates, now known as the Big Bang. Observations reinforced the idea, and the insights of quantum mechanics began to illuminate the early moments following the initial explosion. A refinement was added in the 1980s by Alan Guth, who postulated a period of rapid inflation following the Big Bang as a solution to several problems, notably the shortage of magnetic monopoles. Barrow brings the discussion up to date by noting that observations in the 1990s forced cosmologists to propose dark matter and dark energy, two entities detectable only by their effects on normal matter. Most recently, some cosmologists propose that we inhabit a small corner of a multiverse, in which multiple universes with different laws coexist. The author covers the various possibilities clearly, with math kept to a minimum, occasionally offering his own speculations to enliven the account. A solid overview of the evolution of cosmology, with illuminating coverage of the current state of the art. A useful complement to Roger Penrose’s Cycles of Time (2011).

 

Pub Date: May 9, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-393-08121-3

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: April 3, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2011

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THE RIGHT STUFF

Yes: it's high time for a de-romanticized, de-mythified, close-up retelling of the U.S. Space Program's launching—the inside story of those first seven astronauts.

But no: jazzy, jivey, exclamation-pointed, italicized Tom Wolfe "Mr. Overkill" hasn't really got the fight stuff for the job. Admittedly, he covers all the ground. He begins with the competitive, macho world of test pilots from which the astronauts came (thus being grossly overqualified to just sit in a controlled capsule); he follows the choosing of the Seven, the preparations for space flight, the flights themselves, the feelings of the wives; and he presents the breathless press coverage, the sudden celebrity, the glorification. He even throws in some of the technology. But instead of replacing the heroic standard version with the ring of truth, Wolfe merely offers an alternative myth: a surreal, satiric, often cartoony Wolfe-arama that, especially since there isn't a bit of documentation along the way, has one constantly wondering if anything really happened the way Wolfe tells it. His astronauts (referred to as "the brethren" or "The True Brothers") are obsessed with having the "right stuff" that certain blend of guts and smarts that spells pilot success. The Press is a ravenous fool, always referred to as "the eternal Victorian Gent": when Walter Cronkite's voice breaks while reporting a possible astronaut death, "There was the Press the Genteel Gent, coming up with the appropriate emotion. . . live. . . with no prompting whatsoever!" And, most off-puttingly, Wolfe presumes to enter the minds of one and all: he's with near-drowing Gus Grissom ("Cox. . . That face up there!—it's Cox. . . Cox knew how to get people out of here! . . . Cox! . . ."); he's with Betty Grissom angry about not staying at Holiday Inn ("Now. . . they truly owed her"); and, in a crude hatchet-job, he's with John Glenn furious at Al Shepard's being chosen for the first flight, pontificating to the others about their licentious behavior, or holding onto his self-image during his flight ("Oh, yes! I've been here before! And I am immune! I don't get into corners I can't get out of! . . . The Presbyterian Pilot was not about to foul up. His pipeline to dear Lord could not be clearer"). Certainly there's much here that Wolfe is quite right about, much that people will be interested in hearing: the P-R whitewash of Grissom's foul-up, the Life magazine excesses, the inter-astronaut tensions. And, for those who want to give Wolfe the benefit of the doubt throughout, there are emotional reconstructions that are juicily shrill.

But most readers outside the slick urban Wolfe orbit will find credibility fatally undermined by the self-indulgent digressions, the stylistic excesses, and the broadly satiric, anti-All-American stance; and, though The Right Stuff has enough energy, sass, and dirt to attract an audience, it mostly suggests that until Wolfe can put his subject first and his preening writing-persona second, he probably won't be a convincing chronicler of anything much weightier than radical chic.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 1979

ISBN: 0312427565

Page Count: 370

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Oct. 13, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1979

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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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LAB GIRL

Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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