Yesterday afternoon, we were walking past the children's bookstore just off the route de Carouge when my eye was caught by Le petit livre du caca
. I had to go in and buy it; the assistant tried to persuade me that I also wanted Le petit livre de l'amour
, and while I waited for her to go and get a copy I picked up this charming little volume and started leafing through it. I eventually walked out with both the book I'd originally come in for and the one I picked up by accident. The shit and the stars: whether by accident or design, a remarkably balanced selection.
Hubert Reeves turns out to be a distinguished Québécois astrophysicist, who, if I am reconstructing the chronology right, spent several evenings during the summer and autumn of 2009 sitting out on the lawn with his 13 year old granddaughter, looking at the stars and talking about science. He comes across as a good scientist and a terrific grandpa. I don't get as clear an impression of the girl, but she asks smart questions. After a while, word seems to have got round, and she often begins a chapter by saying that this is something one of her friends wanted to know.
Some of the topics he covers are the following: what stars and planets are; what scientific method is, and why it's a sensible way to answer questions about the world; why science is useful, but not in any way infallible; how we know the universe is expanding; how people came to believe that the universe started with the Big Bang; how old the universe is; what dark matter and dark energy are; how the universe will end; what evidence there is that there are many universes; how life began; whether there is life elsewhere in the universe; and what we should be worrying about right now on Earth.
Reeves answers the questions honestly and well, and I'm touched that he went to the trouble of writing it all up. When there is an answer that's generally agreed on by the scientific community, he gives a clear and succinct summary; when there isn't, he is not ashamed to admit that he doesn't know. Sometimes he speculates a little, but he always gives a warning when he's speculating. He provides just the right amount of detail to satisfy a smart but not excessively geeky young teen.
Every now and then you get a nice anecdote. My favorite was the one about George Gamow, one of the author's professors when he was a young man. Gamow was asked if there was any possibility that protons and neutrons might not be truly elementary particles. "I am quite sure they aren't!" said the always-outspoken Gamow. "I would bet half my fortune on it!" Gamow was known to be very rich, so Reeves and his fellow students were convinced. But, a few years later, evidence began accumulating for the new quark theory, and pretty soon it turned out that Gamow had been wrong. Remember grandpa's words: maintain a skeptical attitude, and don't believe everything that famous scientists tell you.
The book is a delight to read, and if there isn't already an English-language edition I hope there soon will be. Should you happen to be the grandparent of a French-speaking teen, you may just have found the right birthday present.
The English translation is now out - I saw it the other day in a local bookshop, though I unfortunately didn't have time to take a look at it. Given that the author is Canadian and presumably bilingual, I'm guessing though that it should be well done.