Venus inferred

Companion to the Cosmos
June 21, 1996

John Gribbin has spent a lifetime thinking, reading and writing about the universe, and this chunky book is the comprehensive result. It covers everything from big science concepts (the anthropic principle, superstrings) to scientific biographies, rules and laws (try the Malmquist effect) and objects in the universe. Also provided is a bibliography, which reveals that a surprising number of the more important books on the universe are by Gribbin, and a series of "timelines" of history and scientific development.

If you can afford something that costs a little more than, say, the Penguin Dictionary of Astronomy, Companion to the Cosmos is the book to go for. It is excellent value for money, is almost comprehensive and is almost free of errors. If it fails to walk off the shelf, part of the reason may well be its rather low production values; there is no colour, and the black and white pictures are pretty muddy.

Perhaps the key questions about a book such as this are, to whom it is intended to appeal and how is the reader meant to use it? The book is written at a level that allows the nonscientist to use it easily, putting it straight onto the popular science shelf. Indeed, many buyers will probably see Companion to the Cosmos as an alternative to big glossy guides to the universe rather than as a rival to mainstream reference books.

Although it failed this reviewer's quality test for astronomical biography by containing no reference to Jeremiah Horrocks (the British astronomer who made the first observation of the transit of Venus), one of the book's joys is its mass of biographical material, especially its confident engagement with scientists who are still alive and in some cases not even particularly old, such as Alan Guth. With Gribbin, unlike many writers of reference books, the subject does not seem to be set in stone.

This attention to the personalities behind our knowledge of the cosmos also leads Gribbin to settle numerous scores about scientific priority, including the first astronomical use of the telescope (by Thomas Digges, not Galileo) and the first inklings of Olbers's paradox about the night sky. Heinrich Olbers wrote about it in the 19th century and Hermann Bondi applied his name to it in the 1950s, but Kepler, Halley, Digges and perhaps others had been thinking about it centuries before.

The principal impression formed by a close reading of this book is of the incredible maturity of the field. Despite astronomy and cosmology involving relatively small numbers of people, there is an astonishing array of knowledge on everything from the internal workings of the stars (try the triple alpha process) to the climatic effects of variations in the earth's orbit, with an entry on Milankovitch and his cycles. However, Carl Sagan's analogous work on Mars does not feature, and nor does Sagan himself.

Even in a book this big it is not possible for everything to be treated in equal depth. Its chief failing, and it is a serious one, is its incredibly cursory treatment of the solar system. Most of our knowledge of the solar system has been acquired in the past 30 years, because of the success of space missions to the moon and planets. None of the excitement of this revolution is apparent in the book, and next to none of the content. The entry on Jupiter, the largest object in the solar system apart from the sun itself, runs to seven lines, and (apart from mentioning the number of Jovian satellites and its ring system) it could have been written a century ago.

The same applies to the entries on the moon and the other planets, all of which are hopeless. Mars gets fewer than six lines, while the entry for Venus does not mention Magellan, the spacecraft that produced most of our knowledge of the place, and Magellan does not get its own entry. The Venus entry also contains one of the book's few infelicities. Venus does not appear as a morning or evening star "depending on its position in its orbit", but depending upon its position relative to the earth.

The same reservation applies to the small objects of the solar system, which in recent times have moved from curiosity status into the limelight as the bearers of clues about the origin and development of the solar system. The references to asteroids and minor planets are far too short and do not go into the different asteroid types, in contrast to the detail devoted to objects a lot farther away. And in general, there is too little on the convergence between these objects that is now emerging and has already delivered much intellectual excitement.

It is hard to be as complimentary about the timelines at the end of the book as it is about its main text. They are the work of Benjamin Gribbin, teenage son of John, and it would be pleasant not to be too discouraging. (Family enterprise flourishes among the Gribbins: John's wife Mary is billed as editor of the main text and shares the copyright with John, while Jonathan, their other son, produced the diagrams.) But the timelines are a hilariously idiosyncratic list of "key dates in history," including the writing of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Sarah Bernhardt's arrival at the Comedie Francaise, Mr Birdseye's invention of frozen food and Mr Biro's development of the ballpoint, and the launch of both the Apple II and Apple Macintosh computers. Omitted are the Challenger disaster, the end of apartheid and the Gulf war, although the collapse of the USSR and the 1985 Mexico City earthquake are there. Perhaps the lesson is that the links between the development of science and the rest of history are a bit more subtle than one might at first imagine.

Nevertheless, this book will sell well, deservedly. Gribbin's powers of explanation, honed in writing more books than many people ever read, are massive and have never been used to greater effect.

Martin Ince is deputy editor, The THES, and author of the forthcoming Dictionary of Astronomy, published by Peter Collin.

Companion to the Cosmos

Author - John Gribbin
ISBN - 0 297 81725 6
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £20.00
Pages - 504

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