REVIEW

Cosmic Chronicles by Australia's chief astronomer, Fred Watson, is grounded in pure science, but never talks down

Back when he made jokes, Woody Allen reckoned there were only two salient questions about outer space. Were there sentient beings lurking out there, and did they have ray guns?

Fred Watson, Australia's Astronomer-at-Large (who can boast an asteroid named after him) does not address the second query, but his final chapter does deal with the "unrequited love" we might feel as we are actually alone in the universe.

Before addressing that issue, Watson devotes 19 other chapters to explaining earth and space, planetary explorations, and the universe at large.

The best is reserved until last. In addition to the matter of ETs, Watson's final section includes black holes, dark matter, nature's barcode and light echoes.

Watson broadcasts regularly on radio. The sundry virtues of that intimate, homely form of communication light and lift his prose.

Cosmic Chronicles is deeply grounded in pure science and concerned with fundamental problems in astronomy.

Nonetheless, the book is determinedly conversational. Complicated science is discussed in an admirably clear, coherent, concise manner.

Contentious debates are elucidated while the lay reader is being painlessly educated.

Cosmic Chronicles takes pains to answer - in a lucid and never patronising way - the sort of questions young adults pose about the universe.

Why is the sky blue? Just how empty, dark and cold is the universe?

For generations of parents stumped by such questions, help is now to hand.

For those wanting to trump the kids, I recommend Watson's appraisals of the risks of being wiped out by an asteroid (quite low) or the prospects for inhabiting Mars (limited).

Lovers of arcana would rejoice at the story of Tutankhamun being buried with a dagger the iron blade of which was dug out of a meteorite.

Watson then segues into a bit of esoterica (that only the Earth has plate tectonics) before moving on to assess the stabilising effect of the Moon on Earth's axial tilt.

An alert reader is therefore encouraged to keep moving on to new layers of complexity (like the three stages of twilight) without being asked to master technical jargon.

Scientists might describe Watson's book as a data-rich environment. The term is prosaic but accurate. Watson sifts and orders a most extensive range of material, then makes it all readily understandable.

This book genuinely deserves a readership spanning all ages and many levels of prior expertise.

  • Cosmic Chronicles will be published in October, 2019
  • Mark Thomas is a Canberra reviewer
This story Explaining the universe, with no dumb answers first appeared on The Canberra Times.