by Jeff Foust
Your Place in the Universe: Understanding Our Big, Messy Existence
by Paul M. Sutter
Prometheus Books, 2018
hardcover, 280 pp., illus.
Astrophysics and its related fields deal with some of the biggest questions within our comprehension. How did the universe begin? How did our galaxy form, and the Sun, and the Earth? And how will it all end? Serious stuff, and treated seriously in many books on those topics.
There’s room, though, for a little irreverence, especially if it helps communicate those topics to wider audiences. That’s the angle taken by Paul Sutter, an Ohio State astrophysicist who is also the chief scientist at the COSI Science Center in Columbus, Ohio. His book Your Place in the Universe takes on some of the biggest issues in cosmology without taking them too seriously.
Sutter covers a broad swath of cosmology, and history, in less than 250 pages. Over those pages he takes us from the original Earth-centered cosmology in place up until Copernicus and Kepler through the various discoveries in the centuries that follow, up to our present-day inflationary models for the Big Bang and the accelerating expansion caused by the still-mysterious dark energy. That coverage includes both the science of that changing understanding of the universe and the people who made those discoveries.
He offers that cosmological review with a dose of irreverence. The book is written in a chatty, conversational style, as if at time he is trying to talk with the reader. One example is a passage discussing the 21-centimeter wavelength of radiation emitted by hydrogen: “Put your hands out in front of you and pretend that you’re holding a basketball. I’m serious: put down this book and pretend you’re holding a basketball. I don’t care if you’re in public. We need to do this together.” (Doing so, he said, illustrated that wavelength, crucial in radio astronomy.)
This approach of livening up a topic like this with some humor isn’t new: another recent book, Out There, takes a similar approach to the subject of astrobiology (see “Review: Out There”, The Space Review, November 12, 2018.) Sutter, though, dials it up a few more notches in his book, to the point where he becomes aware of the density of puns in the book. In one passage about the early history he writes about an era when “it’s time for electromagnetism to take charge.” He then parenthetically notes that when an editor complemented him on the phrasing, “I realized that this was perhaps the only unintentional pun in the entire book.” There are, then, many, many more intentional puns throughout the book.
Despite the puns and other language that keeps the book from being too serious, he treats the topic seriously, describing how science has transformed our understanding the universe from the neat and orderly—but inaccurate—models of centuries ago to the “big, messy existence” mentioned in the book’s subtitle that better describes our universe. For those already familiar with cosmology, there’s not much new in Your Place in the Universe, and the irreverence can get a little grating at times. But for those seeking an introduction to the topic, the book’s tone can help make it a little easier to grasp what can often be a befuddling subject.