Book 220: The Cosmic Web by J. Richard Gott

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The Cosmic Web by J. Richard Gott

Finished reading on July 7th, 2016

Rating: 9/10

“The Cosmic Web” is about the largest structures in the Universe, how it was discovered, who were behind it, what were some other competing ideas and how we see it all now.

In this book Gott tells the story of his and some other cosmologists’ part in discovering the structure of the universe that could be called a cosmic web, but has at other times been referred to as a cell-like structure etc.

In the book you can learn more about what were the early ideas of how the great structures in the Universe might look like, and what would be necessary for their formation, and we see that from two perspectives – from the US school, where the so-called meatball theory prevailed and also from the Soviet school where the ideas took more of a pancake shape that all lead to more of a Swiss cheese type of structure.

The book gives a lot of details and background information about the structure’s discovery and what led to it with a few detours to Gott’s own life in science, which makes for nice pauses between the more mathematical parts of the book.

As a book on a specific topic in cosmology, it’s interesting and illuminating, but definitely not an easy read, but you do go over some of the cosmic microwave background surveys, the accelerating inflation of the universe and the inflation theory and the possible end of the Universe as well, so you see the context of the main theme better.

It was really a great book, just it requires a bit of effort from the part of the reader.

Book 211: Mapping the Heavens by Priyamvada Natarajan

cover85505-mediumMapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal the Cosmos by Priyamvada Natarajan

Finished reading on April 22nd, 2016

Rating: 8/10

This book started out pretty much the same way as many books about cosmology do – with Edwin Hubble and Albert Einstein, Fritz Zwicky and others and the discoveries that the Universe is expanding, that there was a specific beginning in time for it, dark matter and dark energy etc.

But then for my surprise I found myself reading about black holes and then back to the more usual for cosmology – cosmic microwave background and the fact that the Universe is expanding ever faster. But then in the end you get to read even about SETI and at some point you’ll find a long-ish tirade about how modern science in many fields is done in large teams and how Nobel prize doesn’t do justice for discoveries that have been made by large teams – someone will always be left out, who shouldn’t be.

In the beginning I found myself getting slightly bored while reading this book – how many books about Hubble and Einstein can I possibly even bare to read? There’s only a certain amount after which you feel they’re maybe not that exciting people to read about in EVERY book (but you can’t get away without them in case of the history of 20th century cosmology and astronomy etc).

I did find however that this book has a great side to it, that I haven’t met in (as far as I remember) any others – namely the author also discusses why scientists who came up with an idea before might not have been the people known for a discovery. That made for very interesting reading.

If you’ve never read about 20th century discoveries in cosmology (and some mentions of a lot earlier scientists and philosophers), it is a great book to read – you get a pretty much full 360 degree view of the most important ideas and the stories behind them with some extra things to think about.

I probably would have given this book a 10/10 if I wouldn’t be so fed up with reading about history of 20th century astronomy all the time, so 8/10 is even really high.

Also there’s no mathematics or difficult concepts that you would need to grasp to read this book, so it is quite an easy read. And there’s an awesome long”Suggested Further Reading” section at the end. It’s awesome because I’ve read a lot of those books and I know they’re great, and everything I haven’t read I’ve added to my To-Read list :).

 

I got early access to this book via NetGalley.com

Book 207: The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes

PIMG_1088The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science  by Richard Holmes

Finished reading on March 30th, 2016

Rating: 10/10

I had come in contact with this book in bookstores several times. The title and subtitle were just interesting enough for me to pick it up, but the blurbs and short description on the back didn’t motivate me enough to want to read it.

That all didn’t matter anymore when one day my boss said she had just finished reading a good book on the history of science in the beginning of 19th century. So I borrowed it and felt compelled to read it as soon and fast as possible, to get back to books that I’ve selected (in my infinite wisdom) myself.

“The Age of Wonder” paints an image of what was going on in science at the very end of 18th century and beginning of 19th century in Great Britain. When I started reading this book I was quite familiar with William and John Herschel (if you’re looking for a great book about William Herschel see this), I might have come across the name of Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday’s name crept up several times during my stint of studying physics, but for the most part I had never heard of the scientists and explorers that were mentioned in the book. (Which explains why the mention of someone called Joseph Banks on the back of the book didn’t leave me with the need to read this book).

This brings me to the first point I wanted to make – It’s about British scientists or people working in Great Britain, so I’m sure my view is somewhat different if I’d be British. So to me it seemed like it’s just a tiny piece of a puzzle that shows UK.

The book is truly fascinating and informative and some of the life-stories seem really haunting, but if you have an idea what was going on in the world at the same time, it’s great, otherwise you might just forget the wider context. If you keep in mind UK, then it’s totally fine.

In the book you can read about Joseph Bank’s expedition to Tahiti (very curious story there) and his later life as the president of the Royal Society; about William Herschel and his sister Caroline and how the first discovered Uranus and the second discovered several comets and was of great help to her brother as his assistant.

Then there’s the stories about Humphry Davy –  which were quite illuminating, and the authors description was so vivid, that you could imagine yourself being in the laboratory and seeing young Davy breathing in laughing gas or trying to find a way to build a safe lamp for mines.

It’s interesting how the great Joseph Banks, William Herschel and Humphry Davy leave you with different impressions as you get further into the book – they all start out young and enthusiastic and you might end up with the feeling that for example Humphry Davy wouldn’t have been a great adviser to have in his old age, although when he was young, he might have been quite cool.

There are more people in the book ofcourse, ut for that you should pick up the book. 🙂

It was a very enjoyable read, especially because of the mention of poets and writers of the same time period, and how they saw the scientists etc.

Book 201: The Hunt for Vulcan by Thomas Levenson

PIMG_1057The Hunt for Vulcan by Thomas Levenson

Finished reading on January 31st, 2016

Rating: 8/10

This book is quite small and short and tells of the history of the non-existing planet Vulcan, why some astronomers thought it existed and how it finally disappeared because of Albert Einstein’s General Relativity.

I found the book an easy read, the beginning is rather detailed – you find out more about the astronomer Le Verrier and some of the astronomers who tried to see Vulcan transiting or tried to see it during an eclipse.

You get the idea of why there had to be a planet according to Newtonian gravity, and later you sort of get it also why according to Einstein’s there really is no need for another planet to explain Mercury’s orbit.

It’s great for some light reading.

Book 199: Measuring the Cosmos by D. H. Clark and M. D. H. Clark

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Measuring the Cosmos: How Scientists Discovered the Dimensions of the Universe by David H. Clark and Matthew D. H. Clark

Published in 2004 by Rutgers University Press

Finished reading on January 24th, 2016

Rating: 8/10

If you’re interested in how exactly scientists have come to understand the size and distances in our Universe, then this is a great book to read, as it starts from the beginning and gets to almost the present day in a speedy fashion without delving into the biographies of the various connected scientists for too long.

In the book you can find out who tried to measure stellar parallax and why some were more fortunate than others in doing so, how astronomers figured out that there are other galaxies and how big ours is and you get all the way through the competing big bang and steady theory to the inflation, dark matter and dark energy.

The authors don’t go into too much detail, but if you want to read more, you’ll find a helpful bibliography at the end of the book.

I did enjoy rushing through the book more as a reminder. At some point I did feel as if I’ve read this book before, but I’m sure that it’s just because of the same topic that you can come across in several books about the history of cosmology.

If you’ve never read anything about the history of cosmology, this book would be a great start if you don’t mind that it was published twelve years ago.

Book 193: Telescopes: Through the Looking Glass

Telescopes: Through the Looking Glass by Marvin Bolt

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Finished reading on December 12th, 2015

Rating: for a telescope enthusiast: 9/10,  for a general reader: 7/10

I have decided to try and get my hands on as many books about the history of telescopes and historic telescopes and their makers as possible, and this book is going to be one in a series of books.

This book was published when an exhibition of the same name was opened at Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum. You can certainly tell from the descriptions of the objects – they give the basic gist of the object and/or it’s maker without going into long tales about it – although I would have liked that about equally as much as I like shorter descriptions (bite sized pieces of information on very beautiful scientific instruments).

I found this book quite enjoyable – but historical telescopes are part of my job, so I can see how it might not appeal to everyone as it functions as an exhibition catalog. In case of museums the objects I enjoy looking at the most are telescopes, so it was very interesting. The info about reproductions of some images from astronomer’s works was also quite interesting, but rather general.

Most of the telescopes in the book are very elaborate with draw-tube telescopes,that even use  ivory and even platinum on the grip and most were probably never used for science – I think that shows an interesting side to this invention – it can be a professional science instrument but also a luxury item.

I had never read about trumpet-shaped telescopes before, so that was something new, and also the fact that some quite small telescopes had several integrated eyepieces that you could switch between very easily and some even enabled observing the Sun through a special filter, was fascinating.

Book 189: The Haunted Observatory by Richard Baum

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The Haunted Observatory by Richard Baum

Finished reading some time last week before going to a new college.

Rating: 7.5/10

This book is one of several that I’ve had in my wishlist on several bookstore websites for years (probably three years), but because it seems more as if it just fun tales and anecdotes, then it isn’t really a highly needed reading, or is it?

Do you learn something new? Yes. Is it something new that you can put into a random chat with a stranger at an observatory? Unlikely – it’s rather specific in it’s scope by dealing with observations that at the time seemed like difficult to explain with physics (or in some cases – biology), but turned out to have quite decent explanations.

If you’re thinking that you’ll find aliens in this book – you won’t. However you’d see that there are observations that’ll take lots of time to find an explanation, and that sometimes you can observe something that should be there, but isn’t physically possible to see with your equipment. Or how you can observe locusts or seeds and be very confused because that’s not normally what you’d expect to see.

I did find the book very interesting, and very well researched, and I hadn’t read or heard any of these curious stories beforehand, so it was quite fun – you do meet quite a few of famous astronomers (if you know your history of astronomy, if not, well the astronomers in the book were mostly famous).

I think you have to have a specific interest in curious observations to fully appreciate this book, or at least a firm footing in astronomy because otherwise it’d take a lot of time to get the point why something or other doesn’t make sense.

Lovely book. I’m glad I read it.

Book 182: Black Hole by Marcia Bartusiak

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Black Hole by Marcia Bartusiak

Finished reading on July 4th, 2015

Rating: 10/10

Black holes are some of the most fascinating astronomical objects for the general public, and they do come up quite often in popular culture (think Interstellar…). Bartusiak’s “Black Hole” brings the history of the idea and the basic physics (or as much as scientists know about the laws of physics governing black holes) to the general reader in a fun romp through centuries of scientist thinking about the possibility of an object with such huge mass that even light would not get out.

The last time I read about black holes was in October of last year, when I also wrote a review of Caleb Scharf’s “Gravity’s Engines”. Then as now, I wasn’t altogether interested in black holes – it’s something to do with their popularity and the fact that more than 50% of questions I get at work from children are about black holes. Anyway, despite my dislike for black holes, I find myself once again enjoying a book on the topic enough to rate it with the highest 10 points. Maybe it’s just that I like how well organized and systematic the book is and how you find out more about some astronomers and physicists you might have heard of but wouldn’t connect with black holes.

Also knowing that there are great experiments such as LIGO running to get observational proof for the existence of black holes, makes the reading highly interesting, as there is a repeating theme in almost all books about a specific type of object in astronomy – someone suggests the idea quite early on (not astronomically early, but considering history of science), and everyone thinks that nature is unlikely to create such folly, and then as ideas are gathered and the laws of physics are understood better, it starts to seem less and less unlikely until the eventual discovery of it… right? ( I do hope extraterrestrial life will end up being one of those types of topics…)

One thing that I like the most, ofcourse is, when an idea is considered so outlandish, that scientists try to prove that such a thing just simply can’t exist, as was the case with black holes. And that is basically what you can read about in the book in great detail.

In short: the book is excellent, nothing like Caleb Scharf’s book although the topic is partly the same. And you don’t need to know a lot of physics or higher mathematics to fly through it in a couple of sittings.

Book 172: Genius by James Gleick

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Genius by James Gleick

Finished reading on May 21st, 2015

Rating: 9/10

Richard Feynman is a name that you might most likely have heard if you’re a fan of The Big Bang Theory or if you’ve taken a course in particle physics. I can make checks in both 🙂
“Genius” is one of several biographies of Feynman, who seems to me as the best example of a misunderstood genius, despite being highly acclaimed and having gotten a Nobel prize in physics.

I picked this book up quite soon after reading his correspondence, and as I’ve read “Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman” last year, most of it didn’t seem new, but it was still interesting and it gave a better idea of Richard Feynman as a person, and it was the first time I could actually read about his contributions to physics.

The thing that strikes me the most about Feynman, was the way he worked – not reading the new paper in physics fully, but only until he got an idea of the problem and then trying to solve it himself and spending a lot of time on questions that he never published anything about, although many others would have. That’s just curious. The first explains his great grasp of physics, the second is just a mystery to me, as in my imagination you’d try to publish any significant results. Maybe that’s just it though- he probably didn’t see it as significant enough or as not a big enough contribution?

The book did change my opinion of Feynman in some ways, as previously I had seen him as an ingenious joker, and now I’m not so sure, as it all seems quite tragic.

I did like that you do see quite a lot of his contemporary physicists, so you won’t get the idea that he was the only one working on it, but you see it as everyone contributing something – some more, some less, and find out about their relationships, and you see Murray Gell-Mann, Julian Schwinger and Freeman Dyson appear in the story – it brings Feynman out of vacuum and gives a broader view of everything.

I feel like there’s no reason for me to actually do a short overview of Feynman’s life, as that’s what Wikipedia is for. Rather I’d just say that if you’ve enjoyed stories about Feynman, this biography might be enjoyable, and if you’re studying physics, it’s also quite motivational. I dare you to start reading this and not want to pick up a physics textbook!

Also, I’d really recommend reading “Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman” before this one.

Book 168: The Interstellar Age by Jim Bell

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The Interstellar Age by Jim Bell
Finished reading on April 29th, 2015
Rating: 9/10

If you’re one of those people who might have heard of the Voyager missions in passing – maybe while reading up on planets on Wikipedia, or in an astronomy book, you’re most likely to think that the Voyagers are history – they were launched such a long time a go and they’re literally far gone.

However this book gives a different perspective to it. Yes, the probes were launched in 1977 – a long time ago for me, but the book brings to life the whole “feel” of the missions, as you read about the teams behind Voyagers. That is something that I very much appreciated while reading this book, that it gives it a human perspective. Does a spacecraft or telescope make discoveries? No, no matter how much we might anthropomorphize the spacecrafts in use, they are still just tools (Believe me, it’s difficult to write, I’m as likely as the next nerd to consider my telescope’s feelings or think that my computer is being moody when it’s not responding), that are used by people to do a job.

In The Interstellar Age you get to live through all the planetary encounters, and what’s fascinating is, that you see it through the eyes of the author who got a chance to be there when the data from those encounters reached Earth. That in itself isn’t maybe spectacular, but what is, is that you get the point of view of someone who appreciates the missions and the work and data, while not having a large hugely important role to play at the time.

I enjoyed this book a lot, having read S. J. Pyne’s “Voyager” a couple of years before, it wasn’t all new to me, but a lot of it was – maybe I’d forgotten a lot of what I’ve read about the missions before (there’s a tiny chance of that happening), but it was interesting to read. Especially reading about how the golden record came about and reaching termination shock. Also I liked the authors last points that he made in the book – that the Voyager spacecrafts are probably going to outlast humankind and as such are in a way a monument to it, and all the other spacecraft that leave the Solar system are as well, and it is a somewhat poignant realization.

Just to think that maybe it would eventually encounter life, and some kind of life form will hear the sounds of Earth and see the pictures, when maybe there’s been a runaway greenhouse effect on the planet and all life here has died – then the spacecraft are in a way a tiny blip of a description of an artwork that was destroyed….

Ok, but back to the book – you do find out what was discovered during the Voyager missions and learn more about the people who worked then and now with it.