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Walking on the Moon

Book Review - A History of the Universe in 21 Stars (and 3 imposters)


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Just finished reading A History of the Universe in 21 Stars (and 3 imposters) by Giles Sparrow. A Christmas gift from my partner. As well as a reasonably comprehensive overview of how our universe got to where it is from its beginnings, it is also a very good trawl through the history of astronomy.

As the title suggests, it looks at 21 individual stars, with a chapter for each. Either as representatives of an important stellar class that tells us something about the universe, or as the specific star whose study pushed our understanding forward. The three imposters are things that looked like or were historically confused with stars, but which turned out to be much more interesting.

The style is relaxed, but covers a lot of ground fast. I tried it out on a non-astronomer, and they found it too confusing and complicated. Not a book for the complete beginner. Where it scores is in presenting stuff we are probably familiar with from a new perspective. That's where the history becomes useful, and I found lots of examples where understanding how discoveries were built up over the years made some of the concepts much easier to understand. It also introduced me to a cast of astronomical heroes that I had never heard of, including several women whose contributions have been generally overlooked.

It also has a rather [removed word] tone. This is irritating. The author is not good at humour, and the result is juvenile and detracts from the great story he has to tell.

I thoroughly enjoyed it, although I had to grit my teeth through some of the forced and weak jokiness. I learned a lot and will look at some familiar stars with fresh interest.



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On 28/01/2021 at 11:21, old_eyes said:

The author is not good at humour, and the result is juvenile and detracts from the great story he has to tell.

I've occasionally come across books and articles where the author  feels compelled to jolly people along as if by not doing so the reader is going to lose concentration  when,  at least for me, it has the opposite effect. There is a place for humour and the light touch and maybe in fairness its difficult to get right. I'm not a writer/author so perhaps I shouldn't judge too harshly. 🤔

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That's why I'm not a fan of science books, especially if I'm unfamiliar with the topic. Sometimes, even if the authors are great, they forget that not everyone knows a lot about this domain, and they explain everything too superficially, making it almost impossible for beginners to understand. I wrote a small guide for a uni project about my field, which is dentistry, and it was pretty hard to keep the language as simple as possible. However, several platforms like ELA Resources taught me all the skills to do that. I haven't read this book, but the reviews aren't too optimistic.

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