Non-Fiction Reviews

What Shape is Space?
A primer for the 21st century

(2018) Giles Sparrow, Thames & Hudson, £12.95, trdpbk, 144pp, ISBN 978-0-500-29366-9


For a child, understanding physics beyond the school text books can be something of a passion. Reading and dreaming about the wonders of the universe, how things work beyond the confines of our planet encourages the imagination and inspires careers. In later, life, the same passion can be reignited for those who didn’t tread that path, provided with the right book as a catalyst.

What Shape is Space? is one such book. Capturing all that complex information in such a way that the curious and inspired at any stage of their lives can access it. The idea of accessibility, being a reference tool and promoting understanding is embedded into the entire design. Paragraphs have been written and placed in a variety of sizes indicating their importance. The larger writing is more accessible and easier to comprehend, the smaller sizes give more detail, building on what you have learned.

What Shape is Space? is divided into five substantial chapters with a set of further reading included at the end, along with an index and set of references, etc. The chapters break down the central question of the book’s title into several key topics, which correspond with the historical timeline of acquired knowledge of space and time. For those with some knowledge of astrophysics, the names discussed are familiar, but not necessarily remembered for their exact contributions to scientific knowledge. The book solves this problem by placing many of those names in the context of their discoveries and then linking those discoveries into the timeline. Many are given specific paragraphs to explain their contribution to science.

The full colour illustrations also play their part in establishing the historical perspective. Humanity’s lack of knowledge led to scholars placing the Earth at the centre of the universe with all celestial things revolving around it. Gradually, those celestial objects were observed, technology was refined, and theories revised. The result is our present knowledge; still an incomplete understanding, but a substantially more detailed picture than that which we began with. To show this process, there are illustrations are photographs of ancient depictions of the universe, then images from telescopes and computer models of the universe in its different supposed forms. In addition, we have graphs, historical photographs, scans of book covers and written pages, all linked together by the patient and clear text that explains each concept.

What Shape is Space? communicates each stage of this understanding, building up the knowledge of the reader so they might be ready for a general explanation of current thinking with regards to the origin of the universe and its properties. Each element is clearly referenced too, so the book can be used as a primer and a research tool, allowing readers to dip in and out for specific concepts and ideas. This makes it an invaluable resource for science fiction writers in particular. However, it is also a lovely book for those of any age who are curious about how the universe works. The explanations are clear, inspiring and memorable and the information laid out in an easy to follow narrative. Definitely recommended.

Allen Stroud


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