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the-universe-in-100-key-discoveries-by-giles-sparrowThe Universe in 100 Key Discoveries, Giles Sparrow (Quercus 2012)

Possibly the best book I’ve ever read on astronomy: text and images complement each other perfectly. Even the solidness of the book was right. It’s a heavy book about heavy ideas, from the beginning of the universe to its possible endings, with everything astronomical in between.

And everything is astronomical, if it’s looked at right. The elements vital for life were cooked in stars before being blasted out by supernovae. We are star-stuff that has the unique privilege – so far as we know – of being able to understand stars.

Or trying to. This book was first published in 2012, so it’s inevitably out of date, but many of the mysteries it describes are still there. And when mysteries are solved, they sometimes create new ones. Even the behaviour and composition of a celestial body as close as the Moon is still impossible for us to explain. But sometimes it’s easier at a distance: the interior of the earth can harder to study than galaxies millions of light years away, as I pointed out in “Heart of the Mother”.

In every case, however, understanding depends on mathematics. Astronomers have been building models of the heavens with shapes and numbers for millennia, but the models had to wait for two things to really become powerful: first, the invention of the telescope; second, the development of modern chemistry and physics. Whether or not there is life out there, celestial light is full of messages about the composition and movement of the stars and other bodies that generate it.

But visible light is only a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum and modern astronomy probes the universe at wavelengths far above and below it. The more data astronomers can gather, the more they can test the mathematical models they’ve built of the heavens. The best models make the most detailed predictions, inviting their own destruction by ugly facts. But when predictions fail, it sometimes means that the observations are faulty, not the models. Cosmological models predicted much more matter in the universe than we can see. Is the gap accounted for by so-called “dark matter”, which “simply doesn’t interact with light or other electromagnetic radiations at all”? (ch. 98, “Dark Matter”, pg. 396)

Dark matter is a strange concept; so is dark energy. Astronomy may get stranger still, but the cover of this book is a reminder that human beings inhabit two kinds of universe. One is the universe out there: matter and radiation, moons, planets, stars, galaxies, supernovae. The other is the universe in here, behind the eyes, between the ears and above the tongue. The cover of this book offers a vivid contrast between the swirling complexity and colour of a star-field and the sans-serif font of the title and author’s name. But the contrast is ironic too. The stars look complex and the font looks simple, but language is actually far more complex and difficult to understand than stars.

Consciousness may be far more complex still. In the end, is the value of science that it expands consciousness, offering new physical and mental sensations of discovery and understanding? The powerful and beautiful images and ideas in this book could only have been generated by science, because the universe is more inventive than we are. But without consciousness, the universe might as well not exist. Without language, we’d never be able to try and understand it. Then again, the universe seems to have invented language and consciousness too.

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Sextant by David Barrie
Sextant: A Voyage Guided by the Stars and the Men Who Mapped the World’s Oceans, David Barrie (William Collins 2014)

When a triumphant emperor rode through Rome, he’s said to have had a slave at his shoulder whispering: “Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal.” This book has a related message for its readers: “Remember, you’re comfortable.” The world has become much smaller and much safer since the days when a sextant was an essential part of every ship’s equipment.

Or has seemed to become smaller and safer, anyway. David Barrie reminded himself of the underlying reality by sailing across the Atlantic in 1973 with two companions in a 35-ft sloop called Saecwen (Anglo-Saxon for “Sea-Queen”). The voyage was powered by the wind and guided by the heavens in the old-fashioned way:

Of course I was intellectually aware of the size of the ocean when we set out from Halifax [on the coast of Nova Scotia], but spending twenty-four days crossing it under sail gave its dimensions a very different and truly sublime reality. The long night watches looking up at the stars in the black immensity of space were a lesson in humility and the experience of a gale in mid-Atlantic left me wondering what it must be like to encounter a real storm. People often talk idiotically about “conquering mountains” or “defying the sea”, but there is no real contest. I was left with an overwhelming sense of nature’s vast scale and complete indifference, and this had a strangely calming effect. We come and we go, the earth too was born and will eventually die, but the universe in all its chilly splendour abides. (ch. 18, “Two Landfalls”, pp. 289-90)

That’s at the end of the book. Descriptions of Barrie’s voyage in the 1970s open almost every previous chapter and set the context first for a history of celestial navigation and then for the stories of the men who used it. Their expertise with sextants and other instruments won them fame, but not always fortune. Nor a quiet and dignified death. Captain Cook charted the Pacific, then was hacked to death on Hawaii in 1779. Joshua Slocum made the first solo circumnavigation of the world in 1895-6, then “disappeared at sea after setting sail from Martha’s Vineyard on a single-handed voyage to the Amazon in November 1908” (ch. 15, “Slocum Circles the World”, pg. 255).

George Bass, after whom the strait separating Tasmania from Australia is named, disappeared too, perhaps at sea, perhaps into the slave-mines of a Spanish colony in South America: “Whatever the truth, Bass was never heard of again.” (ch. 12, “Flinders – Coasting Australia”, pg. 176) That was in 1803. I hadn’t heard of Bass before or of his even more adventurous companion Matthew Flinders. And I didn’t know that Vancouver in Canada was named after the explorer George Vancouver. I’m glad to have changed that.

I had heard of William Bligh, captain of the Bounty, but I’ understood the scale of his achievements better by reading this book. He had witnessed Cook’s death on Hawaii, which was why he didn’t want to risk landing on any of the islands of the Tongan archipelago after he was set adrift in an open boat by Fletcher Christian and his fellow mutineers. Instead, equipped with only a sextant and compass, Bligh set sail for “Timor, in the Dutch East Indies, some 3,600 nautical miles away” (ch. 4, “Bligh’s Boat Journey”, pg. 41). He needed both skill and “bloody-minded determination” to succeed.

He also needed intelligence. That combination explains why this book about mapping the world’s oceans is dominated by men from a small corner of that world: north-western Europe. Cook, Bligh, Flinders and Bass were English; Louis-Antoine de Bougainville and Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Perouse, were French. There’s an “x” in sextant and an “XY” in the human beings who invented and used the instrument. Galileo was one of them: his discovery of the Jovian moons provided a way to determine longitude.

Latitude was relatively easy: you can obtain that by determining the height of, say, Polaris at the north celestial pole. If Polaris is directly overhead, you’re at the north pole. If it’s on the horizon, you’re on the equator. If you can’t see Polaris at all, you’re in the southern hemisphere. Or it’s daylight or a cloudy night. Navigation in past centuries was difficult and dangerous. When Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell got it wrong “on the night of 22 October 1707”, he lost four ships and 2,000 men on the “reef-strewn Isles of Scilly” (ch. 5, “Anson’s Ordeals”, pg. 54). Barrie adds that “Shovell himself was washed ashore and reportedly murdered by a local woman who fancied the ring on his finger.”

Even today, with GPS, radar and secure communications, the sea is still claiming lives. This book reminds you of the days when it claimed many more and was a much more frightening place to venture. Those days may return: modern electronics and satellite technology are a fragile system and Barrie describes at the end of the book how some sailors deliberately abandon it, training themselves to rely on their own eyes and brains, not on the pressing of buttons. This book is about balls in more senses than one. The Polynesians who made astonishing voyages over the Pacific didn’t use only their eyes:

When the horizon was obscured and its changing slant could not tell them how their boat was responding to the waves, they apparently stood with their legs apart, using the inertia of their testicles as a guide. (ch. 17, “‘These are men’”, pg. 283)

That’s a reminder of the male biochemistry underlying the courage required to face the sea and the spatial skills that had to accompany it. There are lots of balls elsewhere: the terrestrial globe and the globes of the sun, moon, planets and stars that helped men navigate their way around it. Sextant is a fascinating read about some formidable men and their often frightening voyages. They helped shape the modern world and you can’t understand the modern world without knowing something about them. This book is an excellent place to start.

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Physics in Minutes by Giles SparrowPhysics in Minutes: 200 key concepts explained in an instant, Giles Sparrow (Quercus 2014)

In Borges’ story “The Book of Sand” (1975), the narrator acquires a heavy little book that has an infinite number of pages. When he opens it, he can never find the same page twice. The discrepancy between its finite size and its infinite contents begins to prey on his mind. He decides the book is a monstrous thing and wants to get rid of it: “I considered fire, but I feared that the burning of an infinite book might be similarly infinite, and suffocate the planet in smoke.”

It’s a good story, but the central idea doesn’t work, unless you assume magic is at work. A book with an infinite number of pages would be infinitely heavy. In fact, it would instantly become a black hole and start swallowing the universe.

So I assume, anyway. I’m interested in physics but I don’t know much about it. This book is aimed at people like me. It reminded me of Borges’ Book of Sand, partly because it’s small but heavy, partly because of the density of its ideas and the weight of history behind those ideas. Each page of explanation could easily become a hundred or a thousand: physics is daunting in its scope and complexity. Some of the greatest minds in history have put centuries of effort into understanding the behaviour of matter and energy.

That’s how we got astonishing things like electronics, X-rays and the atom bomb. Physics is an intellectual over-achiever, the super-star of the sciences, the most spectacular, powerful and difficult of all. But it’s the most difficult science because it’s also the simplest. Stars and steam-engines are much less complex than societies or brains, which is why you can’t get away with talking nonsense in physics. And although mathematics governs everything, it’s the simpler things – pendulums, light-rays, atoms, stars – that we can mathematize first.

Or some of us can, at least: the highly intelligent and obsessive men, like Galileo and Isaac Newton, who began modern physics by finding ways to extract abstract mathematics from concrete realities. If they’d tried to find maths in psychology or culture, they would have failed, because those things are too complex. They had to look at much simpler things like falling objects, planetary motion and light-rays. Galileo and Newton laid the foundations and later physicists have built on them, so that physics now towers into the scientific skies, the envy and awe of those working with more complex and intractable aspects of existence.

Giles Sparrow takes his readers on a tour of the tower. I suppose you could say he’s operating an express elevator, stopping briefly on the floors and offering a brief explanation of what it contains: elastic and inelastic collisions on one floor, fluid mechanics on another, mass spectrometry, electromagnetic induction and quantum electrodynamics on more. Then the doors snap shut and the elevator shoots up another floor. But one thing is found everywhere: mathematics. Sparrow quotes a lot of equations and uses a lot of numbers. If you want to understand physics, you have to know the maths. If you don’t, there’s no way to disguise your ignorance.

The maths is beyond me, so until brain-modification arrives I won’t be able to understand physics properly. Until then, this book is a good way of glimpsing the glories of the science. It’s also the closest you’ll get to handling Borges’ Book of Sand in real life.

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The End of Night by Paul BogardThe End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artifical Light, Paul Bogard (Fourth Estate 2013)

Night + light = bad. Interesting subject + poor prose = disappointing. And those are the formulae that govern this book. Artificial light destroys one of the most beautiful and inspiring sights in nature: the night sky. In proper darkness, we can see thousands of stars with the naked eye. In a brightly lit city, we’re lucky to see any at all. And we certainly don’t see any unless we’re looking straight up. That’s why artifical light is like amplified music and traffic noise: it’s one of the great barbarisms of modern life. So I was glad to come across this book.

I wasn’t glad for long, because it’s over-written and dull, despite the interesting topics it covers: the biology and ecology of darkness, the wonders of astronomy, sleep and dreams, the journey from candles to gas to electricity, from night as source of mystery and beauty to night as perpetual light. Paul Bogard “studied Literature and Environment” at the University of Nevada and now “teaches writing at James Madison University” in Virginia. And it shows. If he were British, he’d be a Guardianista. And sure enough:

That we don’t notice glaring lights anymore has direct ramifications for light pollution, of course, but in terms of safety and security, because we are so used to bright lighting, we won’t notice if anything out of the ordinary is taking place. (ch. 7, “Light That Blinds, Light That Enlightens”, pp. 75-6)

I’d like to agree with his argument that light at night doesn’t deter crime as most people imagine it does, but he makes a glaring oversight:

Asked in one study what factors deterred them from targeting a house, criminals listed “belief that house is occupied,” “presence of alarms or CCTV/camera outside the property,” and, to a lesser extent, the “apparent strength of doors/window locks.” Nowhere did they mention the presence of lighting. (Ibid., pg. 76)

Light and its absence are implicit in “belief that house is occupied”, aren’t they? And how good is “CCTV/Camera” when it’s dark? That’s why I gave up this book by chapter 7, which was actually the third chapter in the book. That was a nice touch, paying tribute to the “amateur astronomer John Bortle”, who created a “scale on which he described various levels of dark skies, ranking them 9 to 1, brightest to darkest” (“Introduction”, pg. 9). So the deeper you get into the book, the darker it gets, until the final chapter, chapter 1, is about “The Darkest Places”.

I’d like to have got that far and I wish Paul Bogard well in his campaign for less light and more night. But on this first attempt, at least, I got bored and gave up.

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Front cover of The Cosmic Gallery by Giles Sparrow
The Cosmic Gallery: The Most Beautiful Images of the Universe, Giles Sparrow (Quercus 2013)

I’ve seen some of the images here on-line, but they’re better in a book. The resolution is higher and books satisfy the sense of touch and even the sense of smell in a way electronic media don’t and won’t for some time. You can leaf through The Cosmic Gallery, twist and turn the book as you please and enjoy the contrast between the ultra-modern photographs and the ancient way they are presented. The word “book” may be related to “beech”, because beeches have detachable bark that’s easy to write on. So The Cosmic Gallery combines past and present – and in more ways than one. The gorgeous star-fields here are records of not just of prehistory but of pre-humanity, because the light that made them had been travelling for millions of years when it was captured by human technology.

Some of star-photographs are so colourful and so full of grandeur, distance and antiquity that you can feel them growing like cathedrals in your head as you look at them. But their visual power isn’t accidental. These images aren’t intended purely as objective scientific records:

This book is in many ways a celebration of these amazing technological advances [in photography and computing] that have lately transformed our understanding of the universe. And yet we should not forget that the images on these pages are just as much a product of human artistry as the cave-paintings of Lascaux or the drawings of Lord Rosse [an Irish astronomer who made famous drawings of galaxies in the mid-nineteenth century]. Not only are these technical achievements an art in their own right, but also the representation of data gathered by a giant telescope or distant spacecraft is still ultimately a matter of human choice. Many of the images here make use of false or representative colours to highlight certain wavelengths or certain structures, or to bring entire invisible worlds within the narrow limits of our perception. (Introduction, pg. 11)

The star-photos are the most awe-inspiring and beautiful in the book. Some of the images from the solar system, being nearer to home and closer to the human scale, are almost domestic by comparison. But one of them reminds you of the vast scale of the solar system too: a now-famous shot of Saturn and its intricate halo of rings, taken by the Cassini probe as it looked sunward (pp. 148-9). To the left, “just inside the G ring at the ten o’clock position”, is a “pale blue dot”, easy to overlook, easy to ignore amid the splendour of the Saturnian rings. The dot is a planet called Earth, scene for all the horrors and heights of mankind. It’s a powerful reminder of how small we are even on a much-less-than-cosmic scale. But as C.S. Lewis pointed out: the ability to feel small is possible only to big creatures. Neither ants nor elephants are awed by the size, complexity and age of the universe, because neither ants nor elephants can appreciate them.

Nor can they appreciate the mathematics that permeates the universe and that ultimately is the universe. The patterns here are sometimes huge and spectacular, but the forces that shape dunes on Mar (pg. 86, 174) are shaping dunes on Earth too. And the unpredictability of a water-thread, falling, twisting and sputtering from a half-closed tap, is seen in Saturn’s chaotic satellite Hyperion, which has “no set rotation period, or even axis of rotation” (pg. 168). The swirl of colours in a close-up of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot (pp. 76-7) reminds me of swirling paint in a Francis Bacon; the “writhing mass of cells and tendrils” in sunspots (pg. 172) might almost be competing colonies of bacteria in a Petri dish, or even melted cheese on a pizza. From fire to ice, from dust to gas, from clouds to ultra-violet light, from sun-spots to melted cheese: Mathematica Magistra Mundi, Mathematics the Mistress of the World, oversees it all.

She also oversees the brains of the men – and it has been overwhelmingly men – responsible for designing and building the technology that has captured these images and brought them to the coffee-tables of the world. If we are here to go, as Brion Gysin claimed, then this book presents the looks before the leaps.

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