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Everybody's science

UNIVERSE DOWN TO EARTH Neil de Grasse Tyson Publisher: Columbia University Press Price: not stated

 
By Shobhit Mahajan
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

-- (Credit: Rustam Vania)WHEN was the last time you read a popular science book which made you laugh? Or which didn't treat you like a cretin and didn't make absurd, pseudo-scientific statements regarding mysterious connections between modern science and dancing masters of various kinds? Universe Down to Earth is just such a book, which marks a very refreshing change from the mumbo-jumbo popular science books which have flooded the market in recent times.

Written by a professional astrophysicist, it seeks to explain the fundamental concepts in physical science to the lay reader. The target audience is the interested "average" person who may not be aware of the latest scientific discovery but is intelligent and curious to learn about it. The book is divided into 3 parts, dealing with the methods of science, some key ideas in the physical sciences and, finally, some astronomy.

One of the stumbling blocks in communicating specialised subjects to non-specialists is the translation of the jargon to ordinary language. In an extremely humorous way, Tyson demystifies astronomical terms and concepts such as syzygy, Roche lobes and analemma. There is also a very clear discussion on the structure of science, scientific theory and the role of experiments. For people suffering from "math phobia", there is a Sentimental journey to the googolplex, which is a brilliant attempt to give a feeling for very large and small numbers that one encounters in particle physics and astronomy.

The beauty and power of science is partly due to its universality and economy. With a few key concepts, one can explain not only everyday phenomena like apples falling on people's heads but also the occurrence of eclipses and the explosions of supernovae. Making vivid analogies between everyday objects and scientific concepts, the author takes us on a guided tour of some key ideas like energy, electromagnetic radiation, the Periodic Table and so on.

Here we find jokes about MacDonald's, digs at Hollywood films and much more. It is creditable that in making these analogies, he does not trivialise the concept but brings it to life with his lucid style. The descriptions are clear, and the analogies informative and entertaining. The connections between everyday experiences of the reader and scientific ideas are not only useful for the reader to appreciate the universality of science but also engrave a lasting impression on the reader.

The nighttime sky with its numerous stars, the regularity of the seasons and the motion of the planets are some of the phenomena which have always fascinated humankind. The last part of the book deals with astronomy and its profound impact on the human civilization. Starting with a very unconventional survey of the constellations, we go on to an examination of the "scientific" basis of astrology.

Here Tyson is at his acerbic best. He demolishes the claims of astrology as a science and denounces in no uncertain terms the continuing hold it has on many people. The explanation of eclipses and the retrograde motion of the planets, as observed from Earth, are some of the issues covered in the appropriately titled chapter, Celestial Windings. Finally, there is an extensive list of books on related topics which can help the interested reader follow up on her quest for further information.

---Shobhit Mahajan is a professor in the Department of Physics & Astrophysics, University of Delhi.

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