I have always been fascinated by outer space, from the first moon landing, via Star Trek to an array of sci-fi novels in my teens. So what could be better than this book for someone who was an abject failure in science at school? A book that claims to do for astrophysics what Sophie’s World did for philosophy.
Christophe Galfard has some of the best credentials going – he was Professor Stephen Hawking’s graduate student from 2000 to 2006 researching black holes. I was delighted by his forward in which he promised only one equation, namely E=MC2. Good, know that one. His ambition was not to leave any readers behind. Sadly, I’m still not that great at science and I did get a little lost in the world of quantum physics. Somewhere among the gluons and the quarks that make up protons, I lost the thread.
I was much happier with thing that I could imagine or even see. So if the sun were the volume of a large watermelon, then earth on the same scale would be 43 metres away and you would need a magnifying glass to see it. Brilliant, love that sort of visualisation.
Galfard take us on a journey of imagination through the whole universe. He make us big and small, unimaginably small. 16 millionth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a millimetre small. On one of the journeys we reach the farthest edge of the know universe where we find the Planck Wall. This is where our knowledge stops and pure theoretical research takes over. That in itself is a compelling concept.
Throughout the book things keep blowing my mind. The length of a galactic year, for example. The last time the earth was in exactly the same position in the galaxy as it is today was 225 million years ago – one galactic year. The dinosaurs still had 160 million years to live, one galactic year ago.
The structure of the book is to take us on a journey of the imagination, so that we travel through the cosmos in order to make sense of outer space. We travel very fast and then we become very small, unfathomably small from my perspective as I struggled with the quantum physics. We go back nearly 14 billion years to the origins of both space and time and finally head into the unexpected and ultimately beyond what is known. All the way along Galfard tells us something of the scientists who made these discoveries and who, in most cases, were awarded a Nobel Prize for their work.
In his Epilogue, Galfard reveals that we have been part of a gedanken experiment. This is the name for experiments of pure thought that allow you to travel through the universe as it is known today and then beyond it. Well, they are certainly fun.