Book Review: Unraveling the Universe’s Mysteries

“Unraveling the Universe’s Mysteries” is Louis A. Del Monte’s contribution to the world of science writing. If you haven’t heard of him, don’t be surprised. He’s not a prolific author or researcher, but worked in the development of microelectronics for the US companies IBM and Honeywell before forming a high-tech e-marketing agency.

The book lives up to its title and long subtitle: “Explore sciences’ most baffling mysteries, including the Big Bang’s origin, time travel, dark energy, humankind’s fate, and more.” It covers string theory, the Big Bang, dark matter, dark energy, time travel, the existence of God, and other mysterious aspects of our Universe. Del Monte also discusses artificial intelligence, the end of the Universe, and the mysterious nature of light. These subjects have all been covered in great detail by other authors in other books. How does Del Monte’s treatment of these subjects stand up in comparison?

Not great, in my opinion. The writing is somehow uninviting. The book reads more like a textbook or a lecture than it does a science book for an interested audience. It’s somewhat dry, and the writing is kind of heavy. After looking into Del Monte’s background, it becomes clear why. He’s an engineer, and his background is in writing technical papers.

This book is a bit of a puzzle, as is the author himself. I’ve mentioned the problems with the writing, but there are other issues. In one instance Del Monte references a study from the Journal of Cosmology. If you haven’t heard of that journal, it’s come under heavy criticism for its peer-review process, and isn’t highly regarded in science circles. The Journal of Cosmology seems to be a journal for people with an axe to grind around certain issues more than a healthy part of the science journal community. To be quoting studies from it is a bit of a black mark, in my opinion.

In another instance, he opens the chapter on Advanced Aliens with a quote from “Chariot of the Gods”, that old book/documentary from the 1970’s that just won’t seem to die, no matter how discredited it is. The main thrust of “Chariot of the Gods” is that human civilisation got a technological boost from visitations by advanced aliens. Readers can judge for themselves the wisdom of quoting “Chariot of the Gods” in a science book.

The publisher bills the book as “a new theory to explain one of cosmology’s most profound mysteries, the accelerated expansion of the universe,” and that Del Monte “presents an original solution to Einstein’s equations of special relativity.” But without conducting peer reviewed research, the validity of his theory comes into question.

If I seem puzzled by this book, it’s because I am. Del Monte seems to be a bit of an outsider when it comes to writing about astronomy and cosmology. He has no background in it. There’s nothing wrong with that in principle; there’s always room for new perspectives in science. But I can’t help thinking that he could’ve benefited from working more closely with an experienced editor.

Readers will get something out of this book; it’s an interesting discussion of the mysterious aspects of our Universe. But it’s also a somewhat strange book. For those of you who decide to read it, you’re in for an interesting read.

For more information about Louis Del Monte, see his website.

Book Review: “Hubble’s Universe: Greatest Discoveries and Latest Images”

The Hubble Space Telescope has been the subject of several books and articles, and certainly much more will be written about it in the future, as its status as the world’s most successful science experiment will guarantee that. And though breathtaking images are what hooks many people on the telescope, the Hubble was designed and built to do more than just take pretty pictures. The Hubble was planned and built to shed light on several different issues in astronomy and cosmology.

A new book, “Hubble’s Universe: Greatest Discoveries and Latest Images,” by Terence Dickinson, explains the important contributions Hubble has made in the areas of galactic evolution, dark matter and dark energy, and the expansion rate of the Universe. After a quick recounting of the Hubble’s launch and its well-documented initial problems, the author spells out Hubble’s top discoveries, including Hubble’s contribution to our understanding of the super-massive black holes at the centre of galaxies and our first looks at the atmospheres of extra-solar planets.

But the book is more than just clear and readable explanations of discoveries in astronomy. It’s a stunning picture book, equally at home in the living room as it is in the study. The array of pictures is simply awesome, and as Universe Today readers know, astronomy photos can suck anyone in.

See a gallery of new images from the book here.

Find out how you can win a copy of this book here.
The Hubble Space Telescope and the people that work with it are responsible for the images in this book, but it takes a special person to put a book like this together. The author, Terence Dickinson, is well-known in astronomy circles. If you don’t know who he is, you should. He’s the author of the top-selling star-gazing guide in the world, “NightWatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe,” as well as 14 other books. He’s won numerous awards for science-writing and for the popularization of science. An accomplished astro-photographer, one of his photos of the Moon has been on a U.S. postage stamp. He’s even been awarded the Order of Canada, the country’s second highest honour for merit. Terence Dickinson has a healthy passion for science, and has spent his life igniting that passion in others.

“Hubble’s Universe” is loaded with hundreds of photos of the kind we’ve become used to from Hubble, and some in the book have never before been published (see some of them here). The beauty of glowing gas clouds, the rich luminescence of filaments of gas and dust in distant nebulae, the beauty of the planets in our own solar system. This book is basically a feast of astrophotography.

While many books have been written about Hubble, this one will stack up against any of them. All Hubble books have stunning images in them, but what makes this one special is Dickinson’s ability for explanation. The writing is very accessible while still doing an outstanding job of handling some difficult subjects. If you’ve ever struggled with explanations of things like Dark Matter and Dark Energy, “Hubble’s Universe” will bring clarity, without any dumbing down of the subject matter.

You won’t regret buying this book, for yourself or perhaps for someone else. It’s destined to be a staple in libraries and astronomy collections. I’ll be bold and go a little further. “Hubble’s Universe” is destined to be a classic much like some of Dickinson’s other books.

Here’s a video of Dickinson discussing Hubble and his new book:

Could the Next Planetary Rover Come from Canada?

Prototype of the new Juno rover, a 300 kg rover for a mission to Mars or the Moon. Credit: CSA

The Canadian Space Agency is well known for its robotics but they’ve recently expanded from robotic arms to building prototypes for five new rovers, designed for future lunar and Mars missions. They range from microrovers to full-sized science missions and range in size from 30 kg up to 900 kg. The largest of them, the Lunar Exploration Light Rover, is designed to carry a scientific payload and can be fitted with a robotic arm. It has a range of 15 km, can be operated remotely, or can be used to carry astronauts across a planetary surface.

A version of the Juno rover with tires. Credit: CSA

The two Micro-Rover prototypes, at 40 kg and 30 kg., are designed to be operated in conjunction with larger rovers, and can be tethered to them and lowered into otherwise inaccessible areas.

“On the Moon, permanently shadowed craters provide many interesting areas to find water and other volatiles, Jean-Claude Piedboeuf, Director of Space Exploration Development at the Canadian Space Agency told Universe Today. “These craters have steep slopes making it difficult and risky for a large rover. Therefore, sending a micro-rover tethered to its mother one gives us the ability to explore the bottom of these craters with a minimum risk. Sending only a micro-rover could be an option. However, they are very slow so it is more efficient to have them on a larger rover to cover long distance and deploy them when needed.”

The micro-rovers can also be used to work alongside astronauts, to gain access to small spaces like caves.

The rovers should be mission-ready by about 2020, and NASA is already interested. Most missions to Mars and the Moon involve geology, and sometime in the future, mining. For instance, NASA has an experiment under consideration that entails digging up soil on the Moon and making hydrogen and oxygen out of it. These designs are intended to fit in with those types of activities.

Space robotics technology has long been a point of pride for Canadians, Canadarm was a fixture on the Space Shuttles and made it possible to do things like deploying satellites like the Hubble Space Telescope and was instrumental in building the International Space Station. CSA also built the huge Canadarm 2 and Dextre, the highly dexterous dual-armed robot, both of which reside on the International Space Station. More recently, CSA contributed a robotic arm and other equipment to Curiosity, the newest NASA rover to land on Mars.

Artemis is a light-weight terrestrial prototype that can either be operated by a human nearby or at a remote location, or use its onboard sensors to scan its environment and navigate without the need for a human operator. Credit: CSA

The new rover designs will add to the fine lineage of Canadian space robotics. Once they are deployed on missions to the Moon or Mars, they may end up elbowing the Canadarm and Dextre out of the spotlight. If they do take centre stage, no feelings will be hurt. Many of the same people who worked on the Canadarms and Dextre are involved in the development of the rovers.

“MDA (MacDonald, Detwiler and Associates) was the prime contractor for Canadarm and Dextre and is prime on three rover prototypes,” said Piedboeuf.

With these rover prototypes, CSA has avoided the one size fits all approach to rover design.

“The fleet developed by the Canadian industry for the CSA covers the range of applications we envisage and that will be welcomed by our international partners,” said Piedboeuf.

Though the CSA doesn’t anticipate any other rover designs, these 5 prototypes could be focused “on more specific applications such as in-situ resource utilization or science,” explained Piedboeuf.

If you find the unveiling of 5 new rover prototypes exciting, you’re in good company.

“People in industry, academia and within the CSA were excited to develop these rovers that could be one day on the Moon or Mars,” said Piedboeuf. “The opportunity of working on prototypes of space rovers with challenging requirements and advanced autonomy was a great motivation.”

See more images and information on the fleet of rovers at CSA’s website.

Book Review: The Half-Life of Facts; why everything we know has an expiration date

Review by Evan Gough

Knowledge is changing all the time. New facts replace old facts, more precise measurements supersede previous measurements. What was once considered true is overturned daily in our quickly changing times. In “The Half-Life of Facts: why everything we know has an expiration date,” Samuel Arbesman brings some clarity to our constantly changing factual landscape.

It turns out that facts have a shelf-life, and that there is a mathematical predictability to that shelf-life. With an engaging style of storytelling, and just the right amount of graphs and tables, Arbesman walks us through the field of scientometrics, the scientific study of science itself. What do we learn?

We learn that scientific studies themselves have half-lives. For example, the half-life of a study on hepatitis and cirrhosis, both liver diseases, is about 45 years. After 45 years, half of that knowledge will be overturned or superseded. We also learn that differing sciences have different half-lives. The half-life of a physics paper is on average 13.07 years, in Math it’s 9.17 years, and in Psychology it’s 7.15.

“The Half-Life of Facts” is full of familiar examples of, and insights into, our changing knowledge. Universe Today readers will be familiar with the demotion of Pluto from planet to trans-Neptunian object. Other examples in Arbesman’s book will be unfamiliar. For instance, it may be surprising to find out that for many decades it was an established fact that humans had 48 chromosomes. (We have 46.) This was considered such an elementary truth, that other researchers who counted 46 sometimes shut down their research prematurely, thinking they were somehow in error. Eventually, however, the truth did win out.

How science gets us closer to the truth over time is the main thrust of this book. That, and the predictability of that progress towards greater accuracy. But there are chapters that cover how facts spread, how new knowledge is hidden in connections between previously published studies, and how improvements in technology can spur science on to more accurate truths.

Overall, “The Half-Life of Facts” is an engaging book. It moves along at a nice pace, and I think Universe Today readers will find it very interesting. My only beef with the book is its title. It’s about much more than the half-life of facts. It’s a vivid account of the surprising ways in which new facts are accumulated, and how old knowledge is overturned.

Find out more about this book and the author at this website.