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The universe in your hand: a journey through…
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The universe in your hand: a journey through space, time and beyond (2015)

by Christophe Galfard

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Showing 5 of 5
Theoretical physics, cosmology, quantum mechanics - they are all complex non-intuitive areas of science that are very difficult for the layman to grasp. There are any number of books attempting, with varying degrees of success, to explain these concepts to a wider non-technical audience.

Galfard describes a number of very hard technical concepts and I learnt about how the universe works at both the largest and smallest scales imaginable. Unfortunately, like most technical authors in these fields, Galfard assumes that people without PhD's in theoretical physics will be terrified by this knowledge and must be prevented from either hurling themselves off a cliff in despair or reaching for the nearest pitchfork in angry confusion. The book is stuffed with strange stories about great aunts, beaches and ugly pottery that I suppose are meant to be comforting, or, perhaps worse, keeps telling us to calm down and take a deep breath like some patronising mindfulness procedure from a health and safety specialist.

I do not doubt that Galfard and colleagues are very clever people, but they are not the only clever people around and may not even be the cleverest around.

The area where Galfard fails is in explaining how we are so confident that this theoretical house of cards is the best description of the universe we have, where the gaps are, what the alternatives are (if any) and where the thinking is going next. ( )
  pierthinker | Nov 14, 2017 |
A pop science book detailing the development but mainly, current understanding of the Universe, where it has come from, it's structures, and its origin, at the present time and the present understanding. At times difficult to follow but in main, readable. I found it, as a novice, reasonable to follow but got lost certainly towards the end in certain places. Would I read this again? Probably not, and actual,y I think it's the second book you buy on these topics. Not so comprehensive as to be a text book and a reasonable introduction, it would still benefit, in my mind, with being pared down again. ( )
  aadyer | Nov 11, 2017 |
At the outset of his book, The Universe in Your Hand, author and theoretical physicist Christophe Galfard states his ambition to 'leave no reader behind' as he takes us on a journey through all of modern astrophysics, from planets and stars and gravity, through galaxies and the Big Bang, to quantum theory and beyond, including black holes and string theory; a summation of everything we know about "what the universe appears to be, whatever the scale, from the point of view of an early twenty-first-century scientist" (pg. 323). Remarkably, he achieves this ambition.

The book is written with the layman in mind: a gentle and clear-sighted guide through dizzying concepts. Pretty soon, you have an understanding of gravity, spacetime and the galactic vastness, and an awareness of why e=mc² (which Galfard promises is the only equation you need to know) is so important. He is particularly excellent at providing real-world analogies for the concepts he describes (I particularly liked the currency exchange rate one on page 21). Even when he begins to explain quantum theory and the even stranger theories, where we move "beyond our intuition… contrary to common sense" (pg. 313), he outlines the concepts (and their proofs) impressively. I even think I understand string theory a little bit, but ask me again when my brain stops hurting…

I have never read or heard or seen a better introduction to science for the layman than this book; it is on par with perhaps the gold standard in the genre, Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything (though that book did focus on other aspects of popular science, not just astrophysics) and in some respects even surpasses it. It has been able to take on new scientific breakthroughs of just the last few years, including the Higgs boson and the discovery of gravitational waves, and also exposed me to other spine-tingling features of our universe, such as the surface of last scattering, the mind-bogglingly fast star S2 orbiting the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy, and the fact that black holes actually evaporate particles – the latter proof, perhaps, of a unification of Einsteinian relativity and quantum theory, a 'theory of everything' (note: Galfard worked under Stephen Hawking).

Of course, this stuff will "make your brain melt" (pg. 307) and, as easy as Galfard makes it for us, the reader still has to apply himself. At one point on page 298, after already giving us hundreds of pages of voluntary headaches, Galfard notes: "So, here is what is going to happen to you now. First you will have another look at the quantum fields that fill our universe, and you will see that, despite what I've told you so far, they make absolutely no sense. Then you'll have yet another look at all the particles these fields give rise to in the context of quantum gravity, and you'll see that they make no sense whatsoever either. Then you'll meet a cat, which is both dead and alive, and you will, if you follow it all, not understand anything any more." As always in the book, Galfard keeps his promises, though it is a peculiar book which, in providing you with more and more information, leaves you knowing less and less with any sort of certainty.

Indeed, what this book does (and what any good book of science ends up doing) is highlight "the necessary humility such discoveries impose upon us" (pg. 343). After such explanations, can anyone still truly believe in God? If so, then what sort of god? After the vast distances of the galaxies and the minute intricacies of quantum theory, after black hole singularities and string theory have all been communicated to you, the Gods of the Bible and the other holy books, concerned with dividing your oxen fairly and which part of a goat's intestines should be burnt in offering, seem a tad underwhelming. This is not revealed Truth but rigorously applied Logic and intellect; "no fantasy, but what is known to mankind" (pg. 50).

Just like the progress of the book, in which your intellectual certainties are stripped away, the more we observe and learn about the universe, we realise just how little we actually know; how our picture of our universe is "mostly filled with deep and dark unknowns" (pg. 297). Reading Galfard's book, I at first took issue with his second-person, cod Choose-Your-Own-Adventure approach to guiding us through it. But even though it sometimes seems ripped straight from a creative-writing class, it is necessary in a way to treat us as children. Not in a derogatory way, but acknowledging the inquisitive, wide-eyed and childlike wonder at the overwhelming complexity of it all. And, alongside the necessary humility, you also feel a sort of pride at belonging to a race of small, partially-shaved apes on a poky little rock, who have discovered all this in such a short length of time, and marvelling at how one can pick up a Pan Macmillan paperback for £8.99 and, with application, "know what only a handful of people knew half a century ago" (pg. 204). ( )
  MikeFutcher | Jul 23, 2017 |
No, the life of Sol will *not* end, 5 billion years hence, in a manner whose description seems to be that of a supernova. No, photons and electrons do *not* simply turn into one another. And no, the present-era temperature of the cosmic microwave background radiation is *not* anywhere near as high as 20.5 kelvins (whether it is infelicitously expressed as minus 423 degrees Fahrenheit or not). The book's several misstatements such as these seem to stem from Galfard's determination to keep his unusual account of cosmology and fundamental physics as simple and broadly appealing as possible. In personally involving the reader in his narrative, he is apparently adapting the expository approach used by his mentor Stephen Hawking in the latter's 2016 TV series. It does make for enjoyable reading.
  fpagan | Jul 18, 2016 |
This is perhaps the best book I have read on cosmology and physics. Galfard explains these complicated, mind-boggling topics in an entertaining, engaging way. I almost understand now how gravity actually works. I highly recommend this as an introduction to physics for the lay person. ( )
  proflinton | May 17, 2016 |
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"Christophe Galfard's mission in life is to spread modern scientific ideas to the general public in entertaining ways. Using his considerable skills as a brilliant theoretical physicist and successful young adult author, The Universe in Your Hand employs the immediacy of simple, direct language to show us, not explain to us, the theories that underpin everything we know about our universe. To understand what happens to a dying star, we are asked to picture ourselves floating in space in front of it. To get acquainted with the quantum world, we are shrunk to the size of an atom and then taken on a journey. Employing everyday similes and metaphors, addressing the reader directly, and writing stories rather than equations renders these astoundingly complex ideas in an immediate and visceral way."  [World Cat]
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"Christophe Galfard's mission in life is to spread modern scientific ideas to the general public in entertaining ways. Using his considerable skills as a brilliant theoretical physicist and successful young adult author, The Universe in Your Hand employs the immediacy of simple, direct language to show us, not explain to us, the theories that underpin everything we know about our universe. To understand what happens to a dying star, we are asked to picture ourselves floating in space in front of it. To get acquainted with the quantum world, we are shrunk to the size of an atom and then taken on a journey. Employing everyday similes and metaphors, addressing the reader directly, and writing stories rather than equations renders these astoundingly complex ideas in an immediate and visceral way." --… (more)

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