Physics is generally called as the queen of all sciences, perhaps because of its elegance, beauty, charm and glamour. And among the various branches of Physics, from mechanics to thermodynamics, and from electromagnetism to acoustics, none attracts so much attention as astrophysics. It is true that astronomy and astrophysics are among the most glamorous branches of physics; most of the young students who choose physics do so mostly due to their infatuation with astronomy and astrophysics. Also, as we progress in our research career, sooner or later we do try to link our research work with the terrestrial and celestial worlds. That being said, astrophysics is also the subject to invoke if you want to attract young students to take up science education, in particular physics. After all, the lessons do start with star gazing and solar/lunar eclipses! But at the same time, it is also interesting to note how less do we know about space. No, here I am not commenting on how little do we know about space even after so many centuries of research. Instead, I am taking note of the various facts which are known, and is supposed to be in public knowledge, yet the general audience is either ignorant of it or oblivious to such information. Mark Thompson has compiled about a hundred such pieces in his book 101 Facts You Didn’t Know About Space. His aim is to bring the fascination of space science to general masses, and to educate them in an entertaining fun way.
As you must have already guessed, the book consists of 101 chapters, each dedicated to one particular ‘fact’ about space. All chapters are self contained and self sufficient; except one or two instances, no chapter refers to the information presented in earlier chapters. So you may easily open the book at random and read the chapter open in front of you. Length of each chapter is nearly same and short, so you can very easily go through it within 15 minutes or less — while waiting in queue, in daily commute, or having tea/coffee, or in between your daily schedule ‘just for a change/break’. However, rigour has not been sacrificed in major portion of the book. So you can enjoy the excitement and wonder of space in small morsels of knowledge and information.
Though the title of the book mentions facts about space, nearly whole of the book deals with astronomy and astrophysics. The foremost positive point of the book is the compilation of around 100 facts on space physics. Selection of the topics itself must have involved a lot of thinking and contemplation. The writer definitely deserves appreciation for this successful effort. Surely, the selection of chapters would most probably suffer from his personal bias, and any other writer would have most probably selected different topics. But it does not make a cause for much concern. The aim of the writer is simply to introduce a layperson to the fascinating world of space science and he has accomplished that task with much success.
The language is simple and you won’t need to open your dictionary even once. The explanation of all facts are given in very simple terms, in fact too simple. He never — and by that I mean absolutely never — assumes that the reader must be already familiar with a particular concept. He never takes anything for granted and gives short definition/description of even trivial concepts. As an example, consider this paragraph: “. . . astronomers need to use an instrument called a spectroscope which separates the incoming light into its component parts known as a spectrum. You will have seen a spectrum before, when our sky is graced by a rainbow . . . ” And yes, there are no equations; however, there are photographs, one in each chapter, mostly in colour.
Writers of any book of this nature usually try to give a glamorous titles to chapters, making them crispy and curious. However, they end up giving highly ambiguous titles which do not convey what the chapter is about. Fortunately, this book is free from such tricks. Thompson has given chapter titles which are in general apt and accurate, i.e., give a sense of what to expect in the chapter, and at the same time has made them interesting and fit to arouse your curiosity. Some examples are ‘Venus and Uranus are upside down’, ‘Black holes are not actually holes’, ‘It is likely that the Sun will one day swallow up the Earth’, ‘A teaspoon of neutron star material weighs 10 million tonnes’.
It was pleasant to read about Cassini Huygens probe, which was about the time I had started my PhD and I can clearly remember one of my batchmates giving lecture on the mission and its program objectives. My Indian friends would feel pride to note that Chandrayaan 1 is included among these 101 facts of space. The chapter is titled ‘There is water on the Moon’ (Fact 61).
First few chapters of the book suffer from an abrupt ending. The writer gives background information about the subject and builds the story nicely, but the moment he states the fact and its explanation, he stops. This gives a sense of abrupt ending and the reader feels dissatisfied. However, only the first few chapters suffer from this incomplete description. Chapters in the remainder of the book are all well-crafted, well-written and well-described.
A major disappointment of the book is the large number of typographical errors. I am not sure whether what I have received is the final pre-print of the book or an initial draft. In either case, it definitely demands a careful proof reading.
The book would reach a far greater audience if paperback and Kindle editions are also brought out. I sincerely believe that the publishers should consider this option.
Title: 101 Facts You Didn’t Know About Space
Author: Mark Thompson
Publisher: White Owl (June 19, 2020)
Print Length: 288 pages
Price (Hardcover): $42.95
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