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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
Frontiers of Astronomy - Fred Hoyle Frontiers of Astronomy, first published in 1955, is one of the greatest popular science books ever written; according to Origins, it inspired a whole generation of future astronomers and astrophysicists. It is still well worth reading today, and I have rarely seen anything which so clearly shows you both what is good and what is bad about the popular science genre.

Let's first look at the bad. If you want to make fun of the book, it's hardly a challenge: large sections are just plain wrong. The final chapters make a spirited case for Hoyle's Steady State theory, according to which the Universe has no beginning in time; as it expands, new matter is continually created to fill in the gaps. In the light of our current knowledge, it seems almost incredible that anyone could have taken this idea seriously, but Hoyle does a fantastic job of making it sound, not just plausible, but almost compelling. You can see why so many people were convinced. But the presentation is clear-headed and responsible. Hoyle states unequivocally what would refute his pet theory, and it was exactly the things he mentions - radiation left over from the Big Bang, evidence that galaxies in our neighborhood are all roughly the same age, and evidence that the universe used to look substantially different - which killed Steady State in the 60s. Other things in the book which stand out as incorrect are galaxy formation (Hoyle doesn't know about dark matter or black holes, which are now thought to be crucial), and his extremely idiosyncratic ideas about the Earth (he doesn't believe in plate tectonics, he doesn't think oil is a fossil fuel, and he has some bizarre hypotheses about what caused the Ice Ages).

You may by now be thinking that the book is valueless except as a curiosity, but nothing could be further from the truth. In between the dodgy sections at the beginning on the Earth and the dodgy sections at the end on galaxies and the universe, rather more than half the book is about stars. Here, Hoyle is magnificent. Nearly all of what he writes is still in line with modern theory, and he explains it in beautiful, passionate prose. Among other things, he tells you how stars and planets are formed, how star formation is linked to the overall structure of the galaxy, the relationships between the different types of stars, how stars evolve over time, and how they are responsible for creating the heavy elements. Dante, who also loved the stars - famously, the final word in each of the three books of the Divina Commedia is stelle - would have been glued to the page. I immediately saw him putting Hoyle in the Eighth Sphere of the Paradiso, expounding on the lovely details of supernovae as the pilgrims rest for an hour before proceeding on their way to the Empyrean.

I have been thinking on and off all week about what this may tell us concerning modern popular science books. It is hard to escape the conclusion that they are also quite largely wrong. Perhaps, in 2060, people will look at Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe and find it equally hard to believe that we once thought space could have eleven dimensions; as far as I am aware, the empirical evidence in favor of string theory is not stronger than that Hoyle could muster to support Steady State. Obviously, I'm just guessing. But I strongly recommend Hoyle's book to anyone who likes reading popular science. It will give you perspective, and unless you're extremely knowledgeable about astrophysics you'll also learn a few fascinating things you didn't know.