Book Review: Frequently Asked Questions about the Universe by Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson

Cover of the book Frequently Asked Questions about the Universe by Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson
Frequently Asked Questions about the Universe
by Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson
Riverhead, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on September 15, 2021.

Cham, a robotics scientist, and Whiteson, a professor of physics and astronomy, are cohosts of the podcast, Daniel and Jorge Explain the Universe. In their new book, they attempt to answer the most frequently asked questions they receive from their listeners. In twenty chapters, interspersed with tongue-in-cheek comic illustrations, they tackle topics ranging from the origin of the universe, time travel, warp drives, black holes, how the world will end, the predictability of human behavior, and even whether we’re all living in a giant computer simulation. These are some of the biggest questions humanity has ever asked and the authors tackle them with wit, humor, expertise, and humility. The chapters are just the right size to mull over and digest one at a time, but the book also reads quickly enough that it can completed cover-to-cover in one or two sessions. It can also be read out of order, picking the chapters that are of the greatest interest. This is an excellent, easy-to-understand resource for curious people who want to start learning about cosmology.

This title has been recommended for young adult readers:

YA/General Interest: The format and style make this especially well-suited for inquisitive teens.

Book Review: Where Did the Universe Come From? And Other Cosmic Questions by Chris Ferrie and Geraint F. Lewis

Cover of the book Where Did the Universe Come From? And Other Cosmic Questions by Chris Ferrie and Geraint F. Lewis
Where Did the Universe Come From? And Other Cosmic Questions
by Chris Ferrie and Geraint F. Lewis
Sourcebooks, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on July 21, 2021.

**STARRED REVIEW** Our understanding of how the universe works is governed by two models: relativity and quantum mechanics. Both models have proven their accuracy time and again, but we also know that both can’t be true. The quest to marry the two into a single coherent model remains the ultimate goal of physicists. In Where Did the Universe Come From? two physicists explore the various ways our universe is governed by both relativity and quantum mechanics, from its origins in the big bang to the evolution of galaxies, from the death of stars to the heat death of the universe. They also summarize the history of how these concepts developed. They identify the gaps in our understanding and examine ideas for how a “theory of everything” might be forged. The authors do an exceptional job of explaining quantum-physical concepts in layperson’s terms, using examples and metaphors to illuminate the important ideas without the need to understand the mathematics. This is incredibly complicated stuff and it can only be simplified so far. Where Did the Universe Come From? is one of the most accessible summaries of the present state of cosmology on the market.

Book Review: Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe by Brian Greene

Cover of the book Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe by Brian Greene
Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe
by Brian Greene
Knopf, 2020

This review was first published by Booklist on February 1, 2020.

Why does the universe exist? How will it end? What does it all mean? Greene (The Fabric of the Cosmos, 2004), a leading cosmic thinker and popular science writer, attempts to tackle these questions with an eye to explaining our deep need to believe we can be part of something eternal that is focused on the central role of entropy and Darwinian evolution in the unfolding of the universe. He begins with the Big Bang and concludes with explorations of how the universe might end. He explores the development of planets and complex life, the birth of mind, language, and creativity, awareness of mortality, the rise of storytelling, religion, and our attempts to leave some kind of permanent testament to our existence. He serves broad, high level summaries of ideas from physics, biology, neuroscience, philosophy, the arts, storytelling, and anthropology. He provides enough background to follow the meat of the discussion but he doesn’t water it down for nonspecialists. There’s tremendous joy in witnessing a brilliant and curious mind wrestle with such profound issues. He takes readers on a remarkable journey.

Book Review: Dispatches from Planet 3: 32 (Brief) Tales on the Solar System, the Milky Way, and Beyond by Marcia Bartusiak

Cover of the book Dispatches from Planet 3: 32 (Brief) Tales on the Solar System, the Milky Way, and Beyond by Marcia Bartusiak
Dispatches from Planet 3: 32 (Brief) Tales on the Solar System, the Milky Way, and Beyond
by Marcia Bartusiak
Yale, 2018

This review was first published by Booklist on August 13, 2018.

These 32 short essays cover major events in the history of astronomy and cosmology, ranging from the demotion of Pluto to the status of dwarf planet, the evolution of galaxies, the detection of gravity waves and neutrinos, and the role of time in the Big Bang. Bartusiak’s (The Day We Found the Universe, 2009) goal is to provide historical context for many recent discoveries and a summary of how we got to where we are now in the science of space, offered in easy-to-read, bite-size morsels. Many of these essays cover events from the late 1800s through the mid-1900s, the period when modern cosmology was born, but the collection isn’t arranged chronologically. Rather, the essays are grouped, small to large, by topic, starting from the solar system and working out to the larger universe. Of particular value, several essays focus on women who did significant work, but who historically haven’t gotten credit. This is an informative and rewarding read for anyone interested in our understanding of the universe. Recommended for fans of Amanda Gefter’s Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn (2014).

Thoughts in the Wake of a Total Solar Eclipse

Eclipse shadow through tree leaves, over half occluded. Downtown Kansas City, August 21, 2017

Eclipse shadow through tree leaves, over half occluded. Downtown Kansas City, August 21, 2017.
Image property of John Keogh

In the early afternoon on August 21, 2017, a total solar eclipse traversed the United States from Oregon to South Carolina. In Kansas City, morning storms cleared and blue sky opened just in time to view the event, from the first sliver of moon shadow through totality. It’s the only total solar eclipse I’ve witnessed. I’m struggling to put the experience into words.

I started studying astronomy in 2nd and 3rd grade. In 3rd grade, we had to write an essay about what we wanted to be when we grew up and the title of mine was “When I Grow Up I Want to Be a Cosmologist.” Space was my first fascination and my first love.

I’ve seen partial solar eclipses in person. I’ve seen images of total eclipses and they’re beautiful. Astronomically speaking, eclipses aren’t that rare or complex. They happen pretty often, simple mass body physics.

So I expected the total eclipse to be spectacular, gorgeous. I expected it to be cool and interesting. I expected to be fascinated by it and by the effect it had on insects and animals. I expected to completely geek out over it.

I never expected it to be so powerful.

Continue reading “Thoughts in the Wake of a Total Solar Eclipse”

Book Review: Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn by Amanda Gefter

Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn book cover
Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn by Amanda Gefter, published by Bantam 2014

I love Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn by Amanda Gefter more than I’ve loved any book in a long time.

I first became fascinated by cosmology in third grade (no kidding, in third grade I wrote an essay for school titled, “When I Grow Up I Want to Be a Cosmologist.” You can ask my mom—she still has it.) While I didn’t dedicate my life to pursuing the subject the way that Ms. Gefter has, her delight and fascination with the theories of cosmology perfectly captures my own. I know the thrill of them the same way she does.

More than any other, this book reminds me why I love this field of study.

Continue reading “Book Review: Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn by Amanda Gefter”