In Search of Planet Vulcan
Richard Baum & William Sheehan
310 pages including index
published in 1997
The classic idea of the universe was that it was geocentric: the Earth in the centre, with the planets, moon and the sun circling around it and the fixed stars as background. Over the centuries that central idea had to be modified with increasingly complex epicycles as the theory had to be adjusted to observational evidence. It was only in the sixteenth century that Copernicus, Kepler and Bruno challenged this Ptolemaic model and replaced it with the truth: that all the planets, including Earth revolved around the Sun. Copernicus was the first to propose this, Bruno would die at the stake for his advocacy but it was Kepler who figured out how the planets revolved and what governed their orbits. more than half a century later Isaac Newton formulated his laws of gravity, joining Kepler’s laws with more mundane events on Earth, finally providing a complete model of the workings of the Solar System. From then on, any planetary orbit could be calculated with the right observations and the use of Kepler’s and Newton’s laws.
except for one. The orbit of Mercury remained, as the subtitle of Baum and Sheehan’s book has it, “the ghost in Newton’s clockwork universe”. Time and again, no matter how carefully the observations were made and how intricate the calculations were, the two just would not line up. Even the best astronomers in the world, with the best observations could not make Mercury’s orbit confirm to what it should be according to Newtonian physics. It wasn’t until Einstein reformulated the laws of gravity that the reason why became clear. Newton’s laws break down near massive objects like the Sun and although “good enough” for most situations, Mercury’s orbit was just too close to the Sun and Newtonian physics just wasn’t accurate enough. Of course, until Einstein found the real answer, astronomers sought for other explenations for Mercury’s wrong orbit — and the most likely candidate was an undiscovered planet even closer to the Sun: Vulcan.
The State of the Universe
Pedro G. Ferreira
320 pages including index
published in 2006
I felt the need to reacquaint myself with modern astrophysics as it has been far too long since I’ve read anything about it. Sure, I do watch The History Channel’s Universe series whever I catch it, but that doesn’t tell me much I don’t know already, while following the vast array of astronomy blogs out there is no real substitute, as they do assume a certain familiarity with the current state of the art. Long live the public library therefore, for providing quick access to what looks like exactly the book I need: The State of the Universe: a Cosmic Primer. Written by Pedro Ferreira, a lecturer in Astrophysics at Oxford, it’s meant as a layperson’s introduction to what astrophysics thinks the universe looks like and what makes it tick.
The State of the Universe is built up logically from first principles. Ferreira starts with a short overview of classical Ptolemaic cosmology, with the Sun revolving around the Earth and how it was succeeded by the heliocentric cosmology of Copernicus and Gallileo. Over several chapters he then shows how our knowledge of the size and complexity of the universe expanded, from what was once thought to be no bigger than our Solar System, through an understanding of how big our Galaxy actually and finally to an appreciation of the idea that all those galaxy shaped nebulas are actually galaxies as well. Then he goes on to the other end of the scale and explains the physics of the universe: the fundamental forces that shape it (gravity, electromagnetism, the strong and weak force), a quick sketch of the whole zoo of the particles that make up the matter and energy in it and how it all sits together. From the classic Big Bang idea of the evolution of the universe he finally moves on to the cutting edge of current physics, where it all gets a lot less clear what’s real and what’s just clever theorising.
Rivers in Time
Peter D. Ward
315 pages including index
published in 2000
Rivers of Time is a new edition of The End of Evolution, a book originally published in 1994, roughly around the same time as E. O. Wilson’s Diversity of Life, with which it overlaps to some point. Like that book, Rivers of Time mixes exploration of the Earth’s evolutionary past with concern for the
present, focussing on the historical three mega extinctions as well as the one currently under way. Unlike E. O. Wilson’s book however, this is not a call to arms. Ward is much more resigned to the great extinction than Wilson is.
Partially this may be because in Ward’s view, this great extinction has already happened, with the disappearance of the megafauna of Europe, North America, Australia and many parts of Asia and Africa during the last 15,000-20,000 years, coinciding with the rise of modern humanity. The extinctions still taking place now are just the aftermath of this. I’m not sure how much I agree with this, but at the very least it puts the current destruction of ecosystems in place like Brazil or Borneo into a new perspective, when you realise the same thing had already happened in Europe thousands of years ago.
The Diversity of Life
E. O. Wilson
published in 1992
The Diversity of Life is the first E. O. Wilson book I’ve ever read and I finished it impressed. Writing science books aimed at a lay audience is not an easy job to do, having to explain difficult concepts to an audience of whom you can’t assume they have the background to understand them immediately. And you need to do this without boring your audience or telling too many lies-to-children. E. O. Wilson manages to do this with a concept as big and fuzzy as biological diversity, is a tribute to his writing.
Wilson is a biologist, who first rode to a certain amount of fame and infamity in the seventies, for popularising the concept of sociobiology. As a biologist he spent a large part of his career studying social insects, especially ants, from the study of which he also derived some of his ideas about sociobiology. For his research he spent quite some time in developing countries, seeing the ongoing destruction of wild habitats up close, so it’s no wonder that he became a passionate environmentalist.
Time Travel in Einstein’s Universe
J. Richard Gott
291 pages including index
published in 2001
I have to say, Time Travel in Einstein’s Universe does exactly what it says on the tin, exploring the possibility and methods of timetravel in the universe as we know it since Einstein formulated his formulas about special and general relativity. In the process Gott manages to also explore some of the more exotic theories about our universe and how it came to be. It seems that science fiction writers got stiff competition from astrophysicists these days in dreaming up weird and wonderful posssible universes…
It’s this that I have a bit of a problem with here. Granted, this is of course a popular science book, written for thickies and ignoramuses like myself, but it seems to me that a lot of what Gott theorises here is put too strongly as the truth rather than as just a possibility, a theory. For example, at one point he is explaining how the universe might have used timetravel to come into existence, having a closed timeloop for an origin rather than a true origin, now safely in our past so that we can no longer use this timeloop ourselves. Now I’m sure this is all allowed by the maths, but is there any observable support for this theory? That is, can our measurements of the observable universe prove or disprove this theory? Because otherwise, what is the point?