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Book Review:
The Universe Next Door
(two reviews)
by Marcus Chown
ISBN 0747234965
Headline, UK, 14.99, and Oxford University Press, New York, $26.

1: Reviewed by David Hughes

MARCUS CHOWN is a scientific evangelist. The deeper I delved into The Universe Next Door the more I became suffused with a fervour for the subject. Science is great. It is worth the effort. Dedicating your life to science is worthwhile. It stretches you. It expands the mind. It transports you to the frontiers of the unknown.

And my, what frontiers these are. There is nothing cosy about this science. The unknown is vast and frightening. And even though we look back at all the observations that have been made, and all the experiments that have been carried out, we are continually reminded that many of our deductions might be wrong. Today's certainty can be laughed at tomorrow. A scientist 500 years ago would have happily insisted that the Earth was flat, 6000 years old, and that the Sun went round it. I often wonder, when I lecture, which of my forthright statements of "facts" will be in next decade's dustbin.

Chown, who has for years been a consultant to New Scientist, has deliberately set out to be thought-provoking and disturbing. His aim is to shake scientists out of their complacency. And he succeeds superbly.

He starts by considering the arrow of time. As the days tick by, I feel older and older, things around me decay, and the Universe expands. But many physical and chemical processes are time reversible. So Chown encourages us to think about regions in the Universe, now or in the future, where time might be moving in the opposite direction.

Next he derides our use of the singular word "Universe". How do we know that there is only one? Perhaps there are parallel universes existing simultaneously, and even in the same place. He reminds us that the building blocks of matter, the electrons and atomic nuclei, are still mysterious objects. The reader is left worrying why electrons sometimes look like particles and at other times like waves. We are even regaled with experimental evidence indicating that extremely cold electrons can be divided in half.

Then our lazy acceptance of three-dimensional space comes under attack. Extra rolled-up space dimensions, all smaller than atoms, seem to come in very handy when trying to explain the relationships between the gravitational, electrostatic, and nuclear weak and strong forces.

After this, astronomy is only a bit strange-even the problem that only a small proportion of the mass that must be there is present as visible galaxies, stars and planets. The remainder is dark. One fascinating possibility is that the extreme conditions during the first instants of the big bang manufactured a host of black holes, each the size of a washing machine and with the mass of Jupiter. Scattering one of these every 30 light years (or so) solves the problem of missing mass-and provides enough to make the Universe eventually crunch, instead of expanding forever.

Life. Why does our Universe seem so fine-tuned for its development? And why did it originate on Earth just as soon as the first pool of water could exist without boiling away? Did it break out in other places too? And why has this life been able to develop so that sentient humans can actually comprehend the Universe that they inhabit? Why, asks Chown, is science so simple that someone like Isaac Newton could discover the laws of gravity over 300 years ago?

The Universe Next Door is eminently readable and delightfully thought-provoking. It made me feel good to be a scientist, and honoured to be a member of the scientific community. Science is not easy. The task it has set itself may turn out to be bigger than all of us. We might never find the answers.


2: Reviewed by A. Heather Wood

One of the characteristics that makes Marcus Chown such a good science reporter is his ability to convey the most complex ideas in understandable terms. After reading this book, I felt I had a handle on some very complicated ideas indeed. Divided into three parts: The Nature of Reality, The Nature of the Universe, and Life and the Universe, many of the most fascinating theories of our time are laid out in a lucid, thoughtful, and thought-provoking fashion.

Does time run backwards? Are there multiple realities? Was our universe created as an experiment by superior beings? And, of most interest to our members, Are we alone in the universe? All these and many more questions are asked, and some interesting answers are propounded.

Chown devotes some pages to the Panspermia theory that Chandra Wickramasinghe so ably presented at SETICon02. He also writes about the theory of another SETI League member, Alexey Arkhipov, that alien "garbage" may be falling on our world.

The suggested "Further Reading" includes both science and science fiction (and a book by SETI League member Cliff Pickover).

Highly recommended as a comprehensive sampler of Where Science is At.


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