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Sizing up the universe

As a child I devoured books on the stars and planets, on dinosaurs, volcanoes. Was fascinated by the prospect of a space shuttle and lament the fact that I was sent to bed before they landed on the Moon (I was only three at the time, and the Apollo 11 landing happened at 2am UK time).

I was ever keen to hear about the latest research developments on TV from the likes of Tomorrow’s World and Horizon as well as the revelations about life from Attenborough (Sir David, not the bro, Richard). I was constructing all kinds of gadgets with Lego and Meccano from an early age and had an electronics kits at age ten and hankered after an astronomical telescope, a dream fulfilled the Christmas before my 11th birthday. My dad still reminds me that my most favoured word even before I started school was “mechanism”.

It’s no surprise that I went into a career in science and “grew up” to be a science writer is it? Equally unsurprising is that Gott and Vanderbei‘s “Sizing up the Universe” quickly rekindled some long forgotten feelings about the universe in which we will. They present stunning visual comparisons of scale from Buzz Aldrin’s footprint on the Moon, to the gas giants that orbit our Sun to the swirling whirpool of stars that is the Milky Way and onwards and outwards to the Sloan Great Wall of galaxies and beyond stretching back to the cosmic microwave background of almost 14 billion years ago and 14 billion light years away.

The authors offer up the almost unimaginable vastness of the universe in this lavishly illustrated tome (plenty of beautiful Hubble space telescope images and much more, including backyard astronomical photography by Vanderbei). They say almost, but even after forty+ years of trying I personally cannot grasp the notion of the universe being a billion, billion, billion times bigger than that lunar footprint. Moreover, it’s not as if a billion, billion, billion is even a particular large number. Evidence suggests that the universe is a whole lot bigger than the limits of what we can see stretching back to the Big Bang, after all it has been expanding all that time. What’s more, if our universe is simply one bubble in a truly unimaginable froth of multiverses, then what now for “almost”?

You can order Gott and Vanderbei’s Sizing Up the Universe: The Cosmos in Perspective from Amazon, right now. Perfect for emergent science writers whose favourite words might include black hole, dinosaur, and even mechanism.

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