If the spectacular images from the NASA James Webb Space Telescope have you longing to learn more about what’s out there – or at least see more beautiful photos of it –The short story of the universe arrives just in time to satisfy your craving.
Like all books in the Short story of… series, Gemma Lavender’s The short story of the universe (Amazon, Bookshop) is divided into four referenced sections. The first is Structure, which begins with the universe and ends with subatomic particles. Next up is History and Future. It starts “Before the Beginning” (the “beginning” is the Big Bang, T=0, 13.8 billion years ago) and ends with “The Fate of the Universe” at T > 10100 year.
The shape of that future depends on how dark energy behaves. As dark energy weakens over time, “gravity could cause the universe to slowly contract in a big crunch.” Alternatively, if dark energy becomes stronger or even stays the same over time, the universe will simply continue to expand forever until all matter decays entropically into radiation or the fabric of space-time is torn apart into a large fissure. We don’t know which path dark energy will take because we don’t know what dark energy is yet.
The Components section is by far the largest and includes the nine types of galaxies, the fourteen types of stars/stages in stellar evolution, and many other luminous and non-luminous objects that inhabit the known universe. Each part gets its own double pages, with explanations and a stunning image – a photo or composite photo, an artist rendering or a computer simulation. Earth and Mars are special; they each get two such double pages. Saturn only gets one, but Saturn’s rings get a separate one. And Pluto’s dwarf planet must share its distribution with its satellite Charon.
The last part is Theories. About a third of these have already appeared in The Short Story of Science, but a review is always nice.
All pages in the book contain a profile of the scientist(s) who contribute to the theory (or component, or structure) being described. The book is full of sentences highlighting the iconoclastic nature of the scientists – or possibly the dogmatism of the world around them – before their eventual redemption. “While it was initially ridiculed, Chladni’s work inspired a more thorough investigation of fireball sightings that eventually confirmed his ideas,” said one.
“Daly’s Theory [the Moon originated in a giant impact, first proposed in 1946] went unnoticed until the post-Apollo era, when geologists realized it could help explain similarities and differences between Earth rocks and moon rocks,” reads another example. Another: “Wegener’s theory [the Earth’s crust is broken into slow-moving plates, first proposed in 1912] was neglected until the 1950s, when explorers found signs of new crusting on the deep ocean floor. If this level of condensation seems a bit much, this book may not be for you.
“The universe is all around us; it is the whole of existence,” the book begins. “The universe is old…and the universe is huge.” Telling this short story is no small task. But Lavender has been an astronomer and author for decades and is a great guide to the cosmos, whose beauty and majesty we can finally observe.
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