Non-Fiction Reviews

The Cosmic Mystery Tour
A high-speed journey through space & time

(2019) Nicholas Mee, Oxford University Press, £16.99 / US$24.95, hrdbk, 207pp, ISBN 978-0-198-83186-0


The sub-title of this book sums it up very well. This is a high-speed journey through the cosmos, and I suspect that it would seem a pretty intense one to a reader who was not already familiar with much of the material. Nicholas Mee makes few concessions in that regard. He doesn’t begin with the Solar System and work outwards, as most such books do; indeed, the planets get very little mention until the final chapters on the possibilities for life elsewhere. Nor does he attempt to relate it all to science fiction, as other writers I have reviewed here have tried to do with mixed success. The throwaway reference to Star Trek on page 105 comes almost as a shock, and that’s it until the one-paragraph references to the ‘Devil in the Darkness’ episode, The Black Cloud and Dragon’s Egg on page 172, followed shortly after by an even briefer picture credit to The War of the Worlds.

Instead, uncompromisingly, Mee goes straight to gravitational theory by way of Newton, quantum theory by way of Maxwell, and gravitational waves by way of Einstein. The reader who copes with those fairly demanding early chapters will be well-equipped to absorb what follows, and will need to be, because from there Mee goes to atomic theory, then to the Periodic Table via spectroscopy, and from there to dark matter via the fundamental forces. By then we are 71 pages into the book, at the end of Part 1, and only now starting on the promised description of the past and present of the Universe. That’s very well done, succinctly covering what might be called the standard topics like the Big Bang, supermassive black holes, neutron stars etc. But there is one truly astonishing chapter where it shifts gears and covers completely new ground. There are 26 chapters to the book, and the ‘Further Reading’ section at the end recommends follow-ups to almost all of them; but the 18th chapter ‘Cosmic Spacequakes’ is one of the exceptions, apparently because it’s a very late interpolation.

Back in the 1950s, when George Gamow and others were trying to account for the formation of all the elements in the Big Bang, the late Sir Fred Hoyle spearheaded the search for an alternative explanation in terms of formation within massive stars and dissemination by supernovae. He hoped that it would lead to acceptance of the Steady State theory, but the observational evidence for the Big Bang triumphed in the end. Nevertheless, just about every popular work since Hoyle’s Frontiers of Astronomy in 1955 has stressed that the Earth and the atoms of which we are made have all been synthesised inside massive stars – just think of the emphasis Carl Sagan placed on it in Cosmos. Mee is no exception, stating on page 90 “Hoyle and his collaborators were correct. Apart from a few of the very lightest elements, the atoms of the Periodic Table were created in stars and supernova explosions.” But it’s not true.

After the initial dramatic successes of the LIGO interferometers in detecting mergers of intermediate-mass black holes, both were taken offline to improve their sensitivity still more. Soon after they resumed work they were joined by the VIRGO array in Italy, and on 17th August 2017 , the event now designated GW170817 was detected almost simultaneously by LIGO and VIRGO, while the gamma-ray burst was picked up by the Fermi and Integral satellites. The energy level indicated that it was a ‘kilonova’, generated by the merger of two neutron stars in a binary system. The four observations narrowed the search to a small enough area of sky for the Swope 1-metre telescope in Chile to find the source within hours, pinning it down to the galaxy NGC 4993, 130 million light-years away. The concentrated period of observation which followed gave rise to more scientific papers, in less time, than any previous single event in the history of astronomy. (Ian Steer, 'GW170817 Update: Surprises from First Gravitational Wave Observed Independently', Universe Today, 27th October, 2017.)

One of the biggest surprises concerned what was detected in the debris shell surrounding the explosion. Gold, platinum and many other elements were detected around GW170817 in huge quantities. Early sources said there were three Earth masses of gold alone, though Mee puts it at one-fifth of Earth’s mass. Infrared and optical observations of the decaying emission confirmed their presence, with gaps and peaks in the spectrum corresponding to the energy levels at which those elements formed. (Duncan Brown, Professor of Physics, Syracuse University and Eo Berger, Professor of Astronomy, Harvard University, 'How the Universe Creates Gold', The Conversation, October 24th 2017, reprinted EarthSky, October 25th). Reporting on this for Jeff Hawke’s Cosmos, I said, “No doubt there will be more surprises to come”, and indeed there have been.

It turns out that there were problems computing how elements above silver in the Periodic Table could form even within supernovae, and although mergers between binary neutron stars are rare, there are enough of them to account for the abundances of those elements in the Milky Way. Studies of dwarf galaxies with fewer stars have found that most of them are lacking those elements, but in the few where neutron stars have occurred, the proportions resemble those in the Milky Way itself.

Page 145 of The Cosmic Mystery Tour is headed by a new version of the Periodic Table showing the origin of the elements, with everything above atomic number 41 formed wholly or partly within merging neutron stars. This is not a large book (it would fit comfortably within a large coat pocket) and it’s a strain at my age to read the table, at least under artificial light. Its importance is such that it should have at least been given a full page, or a fold-out like the maps in the 1950s Allen & Unwin hardbacks of The Lord of the Rings. Even so, one major implication following from it has already occurred to me – and if there are as many such as I suspect there may be, that chart may rank as one of the greatest intellectual achievements of this century, comparable with the Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram in the 20th. The contradiction between page 90 and page 145, encapsulating the breaking of the news, may make this book a collector’s item in years to come.

Duncan Lunan


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