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Monday, Sep 16, 2019

Review: The Unknown Universe in 10 Chapters by Stuart Clark

Stuart Clark presents a lucid explanation of many cosmic mysteries for a non-technical audience

books Updated: Jan 28, 2017 08:19 IST
Sachi Mohanty
Sachi Mohanty
Hindustan Times
The Milky Way over Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand
The Milky Way over Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

There are known unknowns: would Einstein be on Twitter if he were alive today? And there are unknown unknowns: what if Einstein is alive and tweeting in a parallel universe? In his book The Unknown Universe in 10 Chapters, Stuart Clark does not deal with either of the above unknowns.

However, there are plenty of other cosmic mysteries that the author explains for a non-technical audience. We get a fascinating summary of how our view of the universe has evolved during the last few centuries — starting around the time of Newton or a little before that. Towards the end, the book also touches upon speculative concepts of modern cosmology such as parallel universes.


Along the way, Mr Clark doesn’t shy away from expressing his own personal preferences such as when he says there’s a ‘party line’ regarding climate change and scientists who differ from it are at risk of being branded ‘climate sceptics.’

The book is quite up-to-date and includes some details about the BICEP 2 fiasco in which a claimed ‘great discovery’ of primordial gravitational waves in the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation turned out to be a false positive and merely microwave radiation originating from within our own Milky Way galaxy.

In the beginning, there was the cosmic microwave background radiation. Every popular science enthusiast knows about the tale of the pigeons first suspected of causing the ‘malfunction’ in Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson’s radio receiving device. Mr Clark too covers Wilson and Penzias’ epoch-making accidental discovery in the early pages of the book. We learn that the CMB was emitted ‘just 380,000 years after the Universe was supposed to have come into being during the mysterious event that astronomers have dubbed the Big Bang.’

This modern creation myth, this scientific creation theory is data-driven. In time, every high school science student should be made aware of the fact of the CMB and the story of its detection and then its mapping with ever-increasing accuracy by pioneering space probes such as COBE, WMAP, and Planck.

Before plunging into the esoteric and ‘unknown’ aspects of the Universe, Mr Clark first surveys some of the known bits.

We get a glimpse of the genius of Newton as well as examples of the irrational views commonplace during his time. The history and evolution of theories about the Solar System are touched upon. But the book strictly follows what has apparently become the First Law of Popular Science Writing these days: No Equations, No Figures. The only equation that manages to circumvent this ban is Einstein’s E = mc2.

The book certainly has no shortage of scientific facts. But the challenge of science writing is to take bald scientific facts and then apply some Sagan magic to come up with a paragraph like the Pale Blue Dot.

A lot of ideas including Arthur Eddington’s bold conjecture that stars are nuclear reactors that use nuclear fusion to generate their energy are outlined. We learn about stellar mass black holes — the final stage of large stars — and supermassive black holes which lie at the centres of most galaxies including one at the centre of the Milky Way galaxy.

Stuart Clark
Stuart Clark ( Pic courtesy Speaking Tiger )

Even though science does a good job of keeping human emotions out and making sure science is accurate and only based on data and facts, sometimes human nature does interfere. For example, most of us credit Edwin Hubble with the discovery of the expansion of the Universe. But, as the author writes:

“In 1929, Hubble published results that ignited science in the way Lemaitre’s paper of two years earlier should have done. He (Hubble) showed that the further a galaxy was, the greater was its redshift. It was definitive proof that the Universe was expanding, exactly as Lemaitre had predicted, yet Hubble did not include a single reference to him or his work.”

We live in astounding times. Our ability to spy planets around other stars would have thrilled old timers like Herschel who had first spotted Uranus in 1781. Starting with the discovery of the first such exoplanet in 1995 — the author explains how the Doppler effect helps in making these indirect detections — now there are ‘more than 1,000 identified exoplanets.’ This is actually somewhat outdated as the number right now stands at more than 2,000 confirmed exoplanets.

The bulk of the exoplanet discoveries are being made in the data gathered by and downloaded from the Kepler Space Telescope. This famous space telescope somehow fails to get a single mention in the book.

The story of the discovery of Eris and how that led to the demotion of Pluto’s status is outlined and Mike Brown gets to be the only astronomer responsible for such a demotion. Mr. Brown’s Twitter handle @plutokiller is the only Twitter handle to make it to this book.

The history of the evolution of our understanding of the size of the visible Universe is a perfect example of how scientists, astronomers and cosmologists change their views when the evidence forces them to.

It’s not even a hundred years since the Andromeda galaxy and the other galaxies were acknowledged as separate structures consisting of billions and hundreds of billions of stars each. And tens of thousands of similar ‘nebulae’ that were supposed to be part of the Milky Way were thereafter acknowledged to be galaxies themselves. The Universe grew from being only as large as the Milky Way to something much bigger.

The book provides some details of the famous rivalry between Harlow Shapley and Edwin Hubble in the early decades of the 20th century in which Hubble ultimately prevailed.

The strength of science lies in the fact that no single scientific authority has a veto power on any scientific matter.

Hence, even though Hubble won that rivalry with Shapley, it’s Shapley’s chosen naming of ‘galaxy’ that is commonplace today rather than the phrase Hubble favoured ‘extragalactic nebulae.’

Hence, Pluto is no longer a planet even though some may be curiously attached to the idea of Pluto as a planet. Hence, Eddington’s models about the internal constitution of stars became accepted despite the opposition of James Jeans.

Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)
Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955) ( Getty Images )

Hence, Chandrasekhar’s ideas about the gravitational collapse of stars if their size was larger than the ‘Chandrasekhar limit’ became accepted despite Eddington’s opposition. Hence, quantum mechanics with its uncertainties and probabilities hard-wired into the Universe became accepted even though titans like Einstein didn’t like God playing dice with the Universe.

Read more: Talking to a rocket man: Canadian astronaut on space travel, Isro

Other topics covered in this book: the Harvard computers (actually, they were female astronomers), Vera Rubin (who died recently), neutrinos, neutralinos, inflation, and so on. Overall, this is a good addition to your collection of popular science books. Or, this can be your first book in this category and the beginning of a fascinating journey into the mysteries of our universe.

Sachi Mohanty is an independent writer interested in science, technology and astronomy

First Published: Jan 27, 2017 22:39 IST