By Brian Cox, Jeff Forshaw.
Da Capo Press, 304pp | Buy on Amazon
It must be hard, even for veteran physicists, to imagine the universe from the smallest of particles to the vastness of outer space. Understanding it is an even more daring proposition. So I’ll be honest, when I first started reading Universal, I felt a bit of skepticism. A book that strives not only to present the universe for what it is, but also to explain why it is the way it is, and how we know it — that’s an ambitious goal if I’ve ever heard one. But page by page I sank into it and was thrilled. In a world of fast and superficial information, Universal is a breath of fresh air that goes right to the core of things. In a world of whats, it is a book of whys and hows.
“We dare to imagine a time when the entire observable Universe was compressed into a region of space smaller than an atom.”
From the very first page, it got me thinking. It’s a bit audacious, isn’t it? That we claim to know things about the very insides of the Earth. That we sent people to the Moon and back. That we see and understand stars at distances we can barely comprehend. As the authors themselves say, cosmology must be the most audacious of all sciences. But how does it work? How can we know so much about something that happened so far away, and so long ago? And what does it all have to do with a man on the beach in Ogmore-by-sea?
The problem with cosmology, as is the problem with particle physics, for instance, is that it’s often so very hard to comprehend. It’s all so foreign, so alien — the rules of day to day life don’t really affect quarks, and they don’t really affect black holes. So while many people are aware of the Big Bang and black holes as a concept, few really understand what these phenomena entail. We take them for granted, we read or hear something about them on the news or on Wikipedia, and we’re good to go. But seeing an apple and tasting an apple is not the same thing. You might know the apple exists, you might see its color and have some understanding of its taste — but until you sink your teeth into it, until you feel its taste flowing inside your mouth, you don’t really know what an apple is, do you? This is what Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw did. Many books will tell you that apples exist and describe them, sometimes in great detail. But Cox and Forshaw let you sink your teeth into it, and once you do you’ll have a whole new understanding of it.
More to the point, the book is structured in eight chapters that will walk you through the history of the universe. Each chapter has several practical gray boxes, where you can get a better understanding of the underlying science, and various experiments that you can do yourself (or at least read about). You’d probably be shocked to see just how many things you can do with over the counter technology. You could, for instance, calculate the size of the Earth. Or see that the universe is expanding. Or even get a glimpse into the sheer size of the universe. The book walks you through all the concepts you need to understanding and does a great job at facilitating your journey through the eons and the light years. Having a decent grasp of physics is not really necessary, though it certainly helps. But I feel that this book shines most when it encounters curiosity. Universal gives you a lot of information without really being demanding, but it’s especially rewarding to inquisitive minds who want to understand more and more. It’s not about what you know, it’s about what you want to know.
I’d like to save a special mention for the Einstein’s Theory of Gravity chapter. Rarely have I read such a clear explanation of such a complex topic, and I’m happy to say it furthered my understanding of the concept. Though the entire book flows smoothly, this chapter shines especially bright.
In the end, Universal is a great book. Not because it’s written by two brilliant physicists, or because it tells a great story, but because of the way it is written. It focuses on understanding and not merely knowing things. I can only wish more books would do the same.