Our Universe and beyond

13th January 2006 at 00:00
Becky Parker dips into the excitement of space travel and finds the fascination of physics

Universe: the Definitive Visual Guide

Edited by Ian Ridpath and Carole Stott

Dorling Kindersleypound;30


Nasa: The Complete Illustrated History

By Michael Gorn

Merrell pound;24.95 www.merrellpublishers.com

Parallel Worlds - the Science of Alternative Universes and our Future in the Cosmos

By Michio Kaku

Penguin Allen Lane pound;20

If you're looking for a comprehensive and spectacular book about everything to do with the wonders of space then you need look no further.

Universe inspires young and old alike. I showed it to a range of children and adults between four and 80 and all found it full of interesting avenues to pursue.

The layout and quality of a phenomenal number of illustrations makes the book so appealing. Each section is identifiable by lovely edges to the pages, matched to the essence of the content. The structure of the book is clearly explained at the beginning with three main sections - introduction to the universe, guide to the universe, and the night sky - with a further three sets of inserted boxes on exploring space, myths and stories, and biography.

It is aimed at all ages. For key stage 3, there is information about the history of ideas of the cosmos, looking at the theories of ancient civilisations up to our current understanding. For KS4, there is excellent coverage of the lifecycle of stars and thorough cross-referencing. There are substantial sections on exploring space and spaceflight.

The beginning and end of Universe each have a whole subsection too. Much of the astrophysics in A-level physics is clearly covered, along with concise summaries of big ideas in modern physics including special and general relativity, quantum theory and particle physics.

As well as specific curriculum uses, the book is just so fascinating because of its construction. On many pages where you read about, for example, comets, you then find snippets about the people who made the discoveries. The biography boxes range from the Ancient Greeks up to the first space tourist, with a look at many beyond the standard names. For people just beginning observation there is advice and guidance and fantastic sets of star maps. There are boxes on stories from mythology about the constellations as well as a huge wealth of information to enable you to bring a space dimension to many aspects of physics like the electromagnetic spectrum; or, for example, if you just want a change from referring to the Eagle nebula or Horsehead nebula as your standard starforming region, choose the Elephant's Trunk nebula!

Nasa: The Complete Illustrated History by Michael Gorn has some wonderful photos and a huge amount of information about Nasa's activity since its establishment. There is a useful timeline at the back; I was particularly interested to see how the scathing contribution played by Feynman to the Challenger inquiry was covered. It was a shame it did not mention the famous moment when Feynman put the O ring in his iced water, referring to his description of how the disaster originated in his "homespun style".

This book is for dipping into, but for anyone wanting to get a full picture of the dreams and realities of Nasa over nearly 50 years a thorough reading will compel. It tells about the Apollo missions, the Shuttle missions and Hubble, and looks forward to the new space initiatives of the future.

To conclude without a mention of Parallel Worlds - The Science of Alternative Universes and our Future in the Cosmos would be to confine our imagination to merely one Universe.

In this accessible and very readable new book by Michio Kaku, his clear and enthusiastic passion for the wonder of physics comes across. Discussions about the interpretations of quantum mechanics and the resulting implication of parallel universes are very clear and logical.

We are led through string theory to the idea of the multiverse and the possibilities that experimental tests could be undertaken to determine whether parallel universes do exist. We might be able to detect some of the elusive yet all-present dark matter and the LHC (large hadron collider) which hopes be able to recreate the quark gluon plasma of the very early Big Bang, so making cosmology more of an experimental subject.

The book is full of fascinating insights into the implications and possible futures for us in a multiverse. Kaku's initial words, "It is, in short, a great time to be a physicist and a voyager on this quest to understand our origins and the fate of the universe", resonate throughout the book.

Becky Parker teaches at Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys, Kent

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