Review: A History of the Universe in 21 Stars (and 3 Imposters) by Giles Sparrow

A History of the Universe in 21 Stars [2020] – ★★★1/2

In this new non-fiction book, the author explains key scientific discoveries through stars: from Polaris and the calculation of sky angles/directions and the discovery of Mizar’s double nature and what it ultimately said about star systems, to the mysteries of sunspots and the discovery of the existence of black holes through the exploration of Cygnus X-1. Although A History of the Universe does engage in a lot of confused “cherry-picking” of scientific facts and discoveries, and the language does get quite annoying, the book can still be described as a pure “starry” wonder and a good read for all those interested in stars and key scientific discoveries related to them.

We learn through this book how the colour of Aldebaran, one of the brightest stars in the sky, paved the way for discovering the properties of stars; how the discoveries related to Betelgeuse contributed to finding new forms of measuring distances between objects in space; and in what ways Supernova 1994-D contributed to expanding our knowledge about dark matter. It is also interesting to read about numerous globular clusters, including the impressive Omega Centauri, and how these were also first thought to be stars, as well as about the mysteries of the Andromeda nebula (nebulas are linked to the birth of stars).

My favourite chapters in the book concern the Orion Trapezium Cluster and exoplanets. The Orion Trapezium Cluster is an exciting one to look through a telescope or binoculars (as I also discovered first at the age of eleven when gifted with very powerful binoculars!). The chapter on Helvetios (now known as 51 Pegasi) is also fascinating since it was one of the first stars that gave an idea that other stars may have planets revolving around them too, just like our Sun-Earth combination. The discovery of a planet orbiting around Helvetios – Dimidium (now known as 51 Pegasi b) meant that the race to find the most Earth-like planet in the universe has begun (and it has not yet stopped).

There was aculture war between those who still supported the old Aristotelian view of a fixed and perfect divinely ordained Universe, and the heirs of Galileo, who believed the heavens were subject to change under simple laws of physics” [Sparrow, 2020: 157].

It was mind-blowing to learn that the existence of a black hole was first suggested in 1783! by “John Michell, a clergyman and philosopher…[who] presented a paper to London’s Royal Society outlining the basic idea of a “dark star” whose gravity was strong enough to hold onto its light” [Sparrow, 2020: 238]. Another unbelievable fact is that “the Milky Way [galaxy] and Andromeda [galaxy] are heading towards each other on an inevitably collision course, and the resulting merger will tear them both apart before reassembling them into something else entirely” [Sparrow, 2020: 297]. The book even ends by pointing out the most recent scientific discovery that calls into question the very existence of dark energy! (for which Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt, and Adam Riess won their Nobel Prize in 2011!).

The problem with A History of the Universe is that it simplifies much, but that does not necessarily mean it provides clear explanations. It constantly refers to something it will explain later in the book, and it is quite shocking the way the book describes notable people whose discoveries revolutionised scientific knowledge. It does so in a quite offhand manner. Thus, we have someone who was “freshly minted as a Princeton professor” [2020: 35], Englishman Thomas Harriot becomes “the first idiot looking at the Sun through the new invention” [2020: 67], “Immanuel Kant…the butt of Monty Python jokes”, and there is other similar nonsense such as stars “packed towards the centre where…[they] jostle together like the mosh pit at a pre-COVID rock concert” [2020: 91].

Despite its weaknesses, A History of the Universe in 21 Stars introduces many curious facts and is a good guide on how to find and identify most prominent stars and constellations (since it also has good hand-drawn illustrations) (for example, it goes brilliantly with the Stellarium planetarium software, which is a great free programme enabling one to explore stars, planets and distant galaxies through a computer in the comfort of one’s home).

8 thoughts on “Review: A History of the Universe in 21 Stars (and 3 Imposters) by Giles Sparrow

    1. I wonder what you will think of it! I also thought it was a great idea to map the history of scientific discoveries related to space through individual stars! The book is not perfect, but I definitely learnt something new!

      Liked by 2 people

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