Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Wonders of the Universe - Prof. Brian Cox

I rarely read non-fiction, but this book captivated me. The 'book of the acclaimed BBC TV series' written by Professor Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen deals with what it says on the tin - and it captures a lot of very heavy material in the most enthralling way. I got it for Christmas and it is honestly my second-favourite Christmas present ever and one of my most precious possessions (My new iPod just edged it out in terms of functionality and portability, but it's still amazing).

There are four sections to the book - 'Messengers' (Light), Stardust (Stars and Creation of the Universe), Falling (Gravity) and Destiny (Fate of the Universe). It really doesn't pull any punches and suits anyone from an accomplished astronomer to an intelligent/willing preteen without sounding too  heavy or, on the other hand, patronising.The book is filled with breathtaking pictures of space as well as beautiful pictures from here on Earth.

The first chapter shows the importance of light, being the only connection we have with everything outside our Universe and discusses its properties, as well as some interesting scientific discoveries about it...and some gratuitous photos of gorgeous landscapes, of course. My favourite part of this chapter had to be this quote

'Two and a half million years ago, when our distant relative Homo habilis was foraging for food across the Tanzanian Savannah, a beam of light left the Andromeda Galaxy and began its journey across the universe. As that light beam raced across space at the speed of light (duh), generations of humans and pre-humans lived and died, whole species evolved and became extinct, until one member of that unbroken lineage, me, happened to gaze up at the sky [...] triggering a cascade of wonder in a complex organ called the human brain that didn't exist anywhere in the Universe when the journey began.'

So we're seeing the Andromeda galaxy as it was 2, 500, 000 years ago. How could something like that not amaze you?

Also discussed is the Hubble Telescope. We can *only* see 2.5 million years ago, to the beginnings of our species with the naked eye. But there is much more than that. The book charts the Hubble's history, with the delays in launch time and a mission to space purely to fix one of its mirrors. Astronauts from the Shuttle Endeavour spent ten days in space - basically giving it glasses. Which I liked a lot, because I have to wear them too! What's been called Hubble's most important image was shown and explained - the Hubble Ultra Deep Field.

Some of these 'blobs' are over twelve billion light years away. Nearly as old as the Universe itself.

Stardust talks about the birth, development and death of stars (my favourite part? SUPERNOVAE!). It also discusses the basic building blocks of the Universe and how they came into being...Which basically can give a nerdgasm. Also, the Big Bang and subatomic particles - explained so that you can actually understand them! Well, I did and I'm only fourteen. And wow, those pictures are amazing.

Seriously though, this was my favourite section of the book and it has so much material to get you genuinely excited.

Falling has lots of interesting stuff too, especially NEUTRON STARS and why they're so dense - and tells us that that surface gravity is 100,000,000,000G. Nom. Basically neutron stars are just intense. In every aspect. Temperature, gravity, density, exotic structure, magnetism... They're very cool. Oh, and Newton's Law as well as Einstein's Theory of Relativity feature.

Destiny predicts the Universe's ultimate demise, which it explains has to happen because of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, Entropy. How it will happen isn't known, because it's so, so far away, but it's interesting to speculate.

I love this book. An awful lot, seriously. I think I almost started to hero-worship the guy who taught me some particle physics in such a way that I understood it. This would be a fantastic birthday present for anyone who has the slightest inclination towards Science or just general nerdiness. Which I'm very proud of, by the way. Warning: If this falls into the hands of some teenagers, they may bend the ear off you talking about protons, neutrons, quarks, supernovae...and basically everything else in this awe-inspiring treasure.

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