Student Review: The Universe: A Challenge to the Mind

May 26, 2011

Author: Jacques Vanier

Edition: First

Publisher: Imperial College Press

Pages: 532

Price: £74.00 and £33.00

ISBN 9781848166028 and 6011

At first glance, this textbook would seem to cover cosmology or astrophysics, and indeed the preface starts with a description of how the author was fascinated by the vastness of space as a child.

But Jacques Vanier offers much more than this, taking the reader on a comprehensive journey through physics from the very largest scale (stars and galaxies) to the very smallest (the constituents of the atom).

Chapters include explanations of relativity, fundamental forces, atomic and particle physics, quantum mechanics and nearly every other topic studied in a typical undergraduate physics degree.

Obviously in a 500-page book none of these topics will be covered rigorously, but the amount of detail that Vanier crams in is impressive.

His intention appears to be to provide answers to most of the general questions asked about the world around us through the introduction of fundamental physics concepts - a hard task, perhaps, but one that this book is fairly successful in achieving.

The written style is conversational and easy to follow, and keeps the reader's attention throughout. The chapters are well set out in a logical order, giving the feeling of a continuous course, and the explanations use straightforward language and situations that will be familiar to any reader.

The publishers stress the book's minimal use of equations in the main text, with the relevant maths confined to an appendix at the back for readers who are interested. While this makes the book more approachable, at various points a few equations would have gone some way to making things easier to follow and broken up the pages of seemingly endless text. Similarly, although some diagrams are used, the book is not on the whole especially visually stimulating.

The Universe reads much more like a general-interest book than an academic textbook. It would not be ideal as a core text in an undergraduate degree, given its wide-ranging topics and lack of exercises or worked examples.

It would be better suited as a refresher course in general physics principles, contained within a well-written, well-presented modern textbook.

Who is it for? Anyone looking for an "all things to all people" physics text.

Presentation: Informal and accessible.

Would you recommend it? Yes; it is a thorough physics introduction in an easy-to-read format.


Sears and Zemansky's University Physics with Modern Physics

Authors: Hugh D. Young, Roger A. Freedman and A. Lewis Ford

Edition: Thirteenth

Publisher: Pearson Education

Pages: 1,632

Price: £49.99

ISBN 9780321762191

An excellent general-purpose reference text for any physics undergraduate, University Physics covers a wide range of topics in a style that is clear and easy for students to understand. The layout is practical, with plenty of diagrams, and important equations are highlighted. As is crucial for a text such as this, it is packed with helpful worked examples, and there are hundreds of end-of-chapter problems with answers. Overall, this is a great introductory textbook that includes pretty much everything you would want to know at the beginning of a physics degree.

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