A wild ride through the history of the universe and the technology that’s been used to explore it.
You would think that the author of a book with the title ‘Universe’ would have his work cut out in covering the topic in fewer than 200 pages, but David Harland takes it all in his stride in the latest Haynes Manual – ‘The Universe: Owners’ Workshop Manual’ https://haynes.com/en-gb/universe-manual (£22.99, ISBN 9781785212093). In a single-page introduction, he saunters through concepts from the Big Bang to the ‘multiverse’ of parallel universes, and from life in hydrothermal vents on Earth to the methodology for estimating the number of intelligent civilisations elsewhere. The scope of the book is clearly huge in terms of size and distance, but also in time – as suggested by the subtitle: ‘From 13.8 billion years ago to the infinite future.’ The first four chapters have the comforting feel of the classical astronomy primer, leading the reader from the gravitation and optics of Newton, via the work of Tycho, Halley, Messier et al, to the discovery of the 3K remnant radiation of the Big Bang. In terms of technology, we move from the early telescopes, via major observatories and scientific institutions, to the introduction of satellites and space-based astronomy. The Spitzer Space Telescope in orbit around Earth Image credit: NASA, JPL, Caltech The second half of the book plunges straight into black holes and the techniques of radio astronomy, takes a semi-technical look at the age of the universe, tours the planets in a search for life and settles to a conclusion with the topical subject of exoplanets. It’s a wild ride, and risks raising more questions than answers, but that’s surely the point. The universe is not a done deal or a finished product; it’s the most open-ended field of study we could possibly imagine. As Harland says in his introduction, “It used to be thought that the universe consisted of Earth, its Moon, the Sun, the planets, and the fixed stars. We now know it to be much bigger than that”. There’s an understatement! The Kepler Space Telescope investigated Earth-size planets orbiting other stars Image credit: NASA It’s clear throughout that, without the constant refinement of engineering solutions, astronomy would not have developed much beyond what is accessible to the ‘mark one eyeball’. Nowhere is this more evident than in radio astronomy with its large, high-gain antennas and low-noise receivers. In fact, the work of Penzias and Wilson in discovering the background radiation of the universe was all about reducing noise in their equipment. As the author recounts: “…in March 1965 [they] scraped the accumulated bird droppings off the antenna only to find that most of the hiss remained.” And thus a fundamental discovery about the universe was made. In short, this is a great book for the astronomy beginner, while also being a compact reminder for those whose memories of details once learned have faded. Illustrated with an impressive variety of colour and monochrome photos, and some nice clear diagrams, it’s visually appealing from cover to cover. It’s a shame, however, that the effort could not be extended as far as an index; for the sake of a few hours’ extra work, it would have transformed a pretty book into a truly useful book! space research history of technology reviews books space Related stories Bletchley Park switches on rebuilt codebreaking machine Nasa twin study finds that space has only minor impacts on astronaut health Israeli spacecraft crashes during Moon descent Space X launches and lands first commercial flight ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter confusingly finds no methane in Mars atmosphere Electronic Engineer – Cambridge and Antarctica Cambridge with regular duty in Antarctica. Starting from £30,357 per annum. (Senior) Magnet Engineer/Physicist Didcot, Oxfordshire £33,297 - £39,172 per annum (Discretionary range to £45,048) Review Book review: ‘The Art of Statistics: Learning from Data’ by David Spiegelhalter ISS receives battery, cable, and comms upgrades Amazon joins race to provide global internet access via space Review Book review: ‘Six Impossible Things’ by John Gribbin India silent over Nasa’s missile test criticism Recent articles Comment Why Europe’s roads are not yet swarming with electric cars Human brain could connect to internet ‘within decades’, theory suggests Data watchdog floats ban on social media ‘nudges’ for kids AI bots beat world champion e-Sports team Apple could spend $500m+ on Arcade gaming platform E-bike sector gears up to revolutionise last-mile deliveries Gatwick Airport drone chaos ‘may have been inside job’ Heavy-metal contaminants in drinking water detected in minutes by portable device Comment View from India: Auto industry gains new momentum over EVs and emissions Bletchley Park switches on rebuilt codebreaking machine Nasa twin study finds that space has only minor impacts on astronaut health