The State Of The Universe, by Pedro G Ferreira

Ancient cosmic light reveals what we are and where we came from
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The Independent Culture

In a quiet corner of a rather ordinary galaxy, some complex lumps of matter evolved. Some grew so complex, they even figured out about lumps of matter, galaxies and the immense scale of the cosmos they lived in. The lumps of matter wrote books to tell one another about their universe and the equally amazing story of how they came to understand it.

The relatively new science of cosmology is dedicated to recovering this story. It uses the signals from long ago and far away that reach the Earth, and the mathematics that is effective in describing what they mean. Then it tries to translate them again into ordinary language. And every cosmologist does seem eventually to write a book expressing their amazement about their subject.

Pedro Ferreira's "primer in modern cosmology" is a nice example of the genre. Authoritative, accurate, clear and up to date, it gives a carefully developed picture of how space, time, matter and energy shape the universe. Ferreira, an Oxford astrophysicist, concentrates on orderly explanation rather than evoking awe. This works just fine as the facts as we understand them do that for him. The vista of billions of galaxies in a universe that has evolved over billions of years, but which can be modelled with relatively few physical laws, compels attention even if you know the basics already.

He offers unusually detailed treatments of, for instance, the different fates of a universe governed by relativity theory and the measurement of "relic radiation" - the echo of the Big Bang. Like any worthwhile cosmic summary, the book becomes quite challenging quite quickly. Areas that are well understood, and those still stretching the imagination of theorists, need close attention - which is usually repaid with helpful analogies and vivid thought experiments.

There are still so many parts of cosmology that no one understands. The basic facts about the size and age of the universe are well established, and we know something of its history. But even what kind of stuff it is made of is still pretty mysterious, with measurements of gravitational attraction indicating that there is 10 times as much mass as we can actually see. This and other equally taxing problems indicate that the science still has a long way to go.

Ferreira's first book faces plenty of competition in a crowded market. But, really, the fact that a big-brained biped can know this stuff at all justifies any number of retellings.