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Tuesday book: Whistle-stop tour of the Universe

THE AUTHORS of this book have been done a great disservice by their publishers, who have chosen to go so far over the top with the hype on the dust jacket as to induce a feeling of nausea. Had I merely picked it up out of curiosity in a shop, I would certainly have put it back unopened, and I would suspect that others would feel the same way.

This is unfortunate, because the book is actually a modest but quite workmanlike addition to the growing library of popular cosmology titles, with the unusual (but by no means unique, whatever the publishers may tell you) twist that it looks to the ultimate fate of the universe, as well as its origins in the "Big Bang".

The story starts with the birth of the universe out of nothing at all. It passes rapidly through the "stelliferous era" in which we live, and on to a gloomy future where stars burn out, black holes evaporate, and eventually all that is left is a dark void, sparsely tenanted by feeble radiation that gets ever more feeble as the inexorable expansion of the universe continues.

As this summary suggests, what we get here is very much a whistle-stop tour, and the strength of the book lies in how much ground it covers in a few pages, whetting the appetite of the inquisitive reader for more. That appetite will be well-catered for in the sound but selective guide to further reading provided by Adams and Laughlin. This reading list is selective, almost certainly through ignorance rather than intent, since the authors seem curiously ill-informed about the historical development of their own subject, especially in their misleading account of the discovery of the way that light elements were "cooked" in the "Big Bang".

The weakness of the book is that it is written in rather pedestrian prose, which manages to make even some of the most exciting topics in astronomy sound dull, and it is illustrated by unimaginative line drawings reminiscent of those in a textbook - inexcusable in these days of computer graphics. It is also slightly out of date, which is particularly unfortunate since this means it fails to include a discussion of the most energetic objects in the universe - the gamma ray bursters.

But even if those exciting topics are not given the treatment they deserve, any reader with an ounce of imagination will be thrilled by the discussion of the many weird and wonderful phenomena, proof that scientific fact can be stranger than science fiction. If you already know a little physics and astronomy, you will get much more out of this book than would a complete novice.

The authors are certainly thorough in considering possible fates of the earth and the universe, but they do not always think through what they are describing. For example, they go into some detail describing how life on earth might survive the death of the sun if our planet is captured in a close encounter with another star, ending up (possibly) in the habitable zone around the "new" star. But along the way, as the earth is "swapped" from the sun to the new star, it suffers "many complicated close encounters" with the two stars over a period of about 6,500 years.

So it would have been good to have at least some discussion of whether or not life on earth could survive these millennia of transition, whatever kind of orbit the planet might end up in. It is this kind of omission that leaves a feeling that Adams and Laughlin could have tried harder.

I'd like to be more enthusiastic about The Five Ages of the Universe. If I had not had it presented to me as a work of genius, dealing with previously unimagined topics at the cutting edge of modern research, I would have said that it is a promising debut from two astronomers who know their limitations as writers and researchers, who work within those limits and who give you a solid overview of the science, if not always of the history, that they discuss. And I would have ended by expressing the hope that they might go on to greater things in the not too distant future.

But please, guys, next time around, dispense with the hype.

The reviewer is a visiting fellow in astronomy at the University of Sussex and author of the `Companion to the Cosmos' (Phoenix)