A fascinating guide to “the new geography”
Beginning with man’s narrow vision of a patch of flat earth, the renowned science writer Isaac Asimov traces the steps by which our grasp of the Universe has broadened and deepened to its present state. Now man pictures an expanse twenty-six billion light years in diameter, and approaches the realization of his ancient dream of conquering all of it.
With the scientist’s knowledge, the professional writer’s craft, and the poet’s imagination, Dr. Asimov leads a breathtaking voyage of discovery in space and time that makes even the most complex of theoretical concepts comprehensible, and that furnishes the basic knowledge with which to understand new developments. Astronomy has become the new geography; it is now the shape of outer space that man must learn in order to continue his explorations.
This book is rather like Understanding Physics, volume one and its companions, in that it’s a thickish, definitive examination of a major science written at what I consider Asimov’s science-writing peak, the mid-1960’s. It was an entirely appropriate and thorough introduction to cosmology and cosmogeny and an excellent source of information on the subjects for adults interested in them. (Indeed, I have a cousin who was assigned it as an astronomy textbook in college.)
Now, I say was and I meant it. Understanding Physics, volume three has aged a trifle badly because nuclear physics has seen a lot of progress in the last forty years, but the other two volumes have come through relatively unscathed. The Universe, on the other hand, is dealing with two varieties of astronomic science which have also advanced enormously in four decades, and it suffers as a result.
For example, there is little point now in spending much time discussing the steady-state model for the Universe, since it is virtually defunct. On the other hand, the notion that the Big Bang started off with a huge pile of neutronium seems faintly quaint nowadays and doesn’t even approach modern astronomic thinking.
And, of course, quasars aren’t as mysterious as once they were, and new exotic objects are known (pulsars, black holes, extrasolar planets). Current thinking on the Big Bang also offers value to physics, as the extreme conditions in the first fragments of time after the Big Bang create an entirely different set of relationships between the fundamental forces of nature than we usually experience. And so on.
The book is also a trifle lean in its description of the solar system—although, of course, it isn’t about planetary astronomy, so that’s irrelevant, but I mention it anyway.
The overall result is an excellent and readable but outdated work which I could not strongly recommend to a contemporary audience.