Friday, March 31, 2017

Book rant: “Universal” by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw

Universal: A Guide to the Cosmos
Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw
Da Capo Press (March 28, 2017)
(UK Edition, Allen Lane (22 Sept. 2016))

I was meant to love this book.

In “Universal” Cox and Forshaw take on astrophysics and cosmology, but rather than using the well-trodden historic path, they offer do-it-yourself instructions.

The first chapters of the book start with every-day observations and simple calculations, by help of which the reader can estimate eg the radius of Earth and its mass, or – if you let a backyard telescope with a 300mm lens and equatorial mount count as every-day items – the distance to other planets in the solar system.

Then, the authors move on to distances beyond the solar system. With that, self-made observations understandably fade out, but are replaced with publicly available data. Cox and Forshaw continue to explain the “cosmic distance ladder,” variable stars, supernovae, redshift, solar emission spectra, Hubble’s law, the Herzsprung-Russell diagram.

Set apart from the main text, the book has “boxes” (actually pages printed white on black) with details of the example calculations and the science behind them. The first half of the book reads quickly and fluidly and reminds me in style of school textbooks: They make an effort to illuminate the logic of scientific reasoning, with some historical asides, and concrete numbers. Along the way, Cox and Forshaw emphasize that the great power of science lies in the consistency of its explanations, and they highlight the necessity of taking into account uncertainty both in the data and in the theories.

The only thing I found wanting in the first half of the book is that they use the speed of light without explaining why it’s constant or where to get it from, even though that too could have been done with every-day items. But then maybe that’s explained in their first book (which I haven’t read).

For me, the fascinating aspect of astrophysics and cosmology is that it connects the physics of the very small scales with that of the very large scales, and allows us to extrapolate both into the distant past and future of our universe. Even though I’m familiar with the research, it still amazes me just how much information about the universe we have been able to extract from the data in the last two decades.

So, yes, I was meant to love this book. I would have been an easy catch.

Then the book continues to explain the dark matter hypothesis as a settled fact, without so much as mentioning any shortcomings of LambdaCDM, and not a single word on modified gravity. The Bullet Cluster is, once again, used as a shut-up argument – a gross misrepresentation of the actual situation, which I previously complained about here.

Inflation gets the same treatment: It’s presented as if it’s a generally accepted model, with no discussion given to the problem of under-determination, or whether inflation actually solves problems that need a solution (or solves the problems period).

To round things off, the authors close the final chapter with some words on eternal inflation and bubble universes, making a vague reference to string theory (because that’s also got something to do with multiverses you see), and then they suggest this might mean we live in a computer simulation:

“Today, the cosmologists responsible for those simulations are hampered by insufficient computing power, which means that they can only produce a small number of simulations, each with different values for a few key parameters, like the amount of dark matter and the nature of the primordial perturbations delivered at the end of inflation. But imagine that there are super-cosmologists who know the String Theory that describes the inflationary Multiverse. Imagine that they run a simulation in their mighty computers – would the simulated creatures living within one of the simulated bubble universes be able to tell that they were in a simulation of cosmic proportions?”
Wow. After all the talk about how important it is to keep track of uncertainty in scientific reasoning, this idea is thrown at the reader with little more than a sentence which mentions that, btw, “evidence for inflation” is “not yet absolutely compelling” and there is “no firm evidence for the validity of String Theory or the Multiverse.” But, hey, maybe we live in a computer simulation, how cool is that?

Worse than demonstrating slippery logic, their careless portrayal of speculative hypotheses as almost settled is dumb. Most of the readers who buy the book will have heard of modified gravity as dark matter’s competitor, and will know the controversies around inflation, string theory, and the multiverse: It’s been all over the popular science news for several years. That Cox and Forshaw don’t give space to discussing the pros and cons in a manner that at least pretends to be objective will merely convince the scientifically-minded reader that the authors can’t be trusted.

The last time I thought of Brian Cox – before receiving the review copy of this book – it was because a colleague confided to me that his wife thinks Brian is sexy. I managed to maneuver around the obviously implied question, but I’ll answer this one straight: The book is distinctly unsexy. It’s not worthy of a scientist.

I might have been meant to love the book, but I ended up disappointed about what science communication has become.

[Disclaimer: Free review copy.]


  1. I don't see any reason to talk about modified gravity in a book like this!

  2. Was this also a free copy? :-)

  3. stor,

    It's extremely misleading to pretend that we know particle dark matter exists, to, indeed, put the status of dark matter on par with the discovery of Neptune, because nowhere between the two is the reader so much as warned that we've wandered off from 'solidly established' to 'believed to be plausible'.

  4. Shantanu,

    Yes, sorry, I forgot to mention this. I've added it now in the footer, thanks for pointing out!

  5. I agree about that, to talk about dark matter as if you know all about, when in fact we don't even know whether it exists is not a good exposition of science. But I still don't see any reason to talk about modified gravity!

  6. Like that or not, modified gravity is the main competitor of particle dark matter.

  7. "dark matter hypothesis as a settled fact" Baryogensis violates parity (spatial chiral anisotropy) and baryon number conservations. Noether's theorems couple exact angular momentum conservation with exact spatial achiral isotropy. Baryogenesis demands Milgrom acceleration (Noetherian leakage). Racemic not achiral Strong force leaks both conservations; Einstein-Hilbert action plus Chern-Simons.

    An atom-scale Tootsie pop is a quantized prolate rotor vacuum spinning about its two identical large moments of inertia. The stick is N≡C- connected to the 2-position of D_3-trisjhomocubane, an immensely chiral hollow molecule (3D stereogram).

    Given spatial chiral anisotropy, left and right lollipops spin with different rotational temperatures (a left foot fitted with opposite shoes) - microwave spectrometer, one day. LOOK.

  8. Thank you for the review. Could not have been easy for you.

  9. MOND is as ugly as a horned toad, but the universe does seem to contain horned toads.

  10. All too many scientists do not realize that their greatest asset should be teaching how the plausibility of evidence is established, indeed. But then, again, too many confuse science and following the fashionable herd, and that's never how scientific revolutions happened.

  11. Thanks for the review and pointing out that too often when communicating to the populous “scientist” present their own opinions of theory and hypothesis as absolute fact regardless of known shortcomings. It’s that darn human behavior mucking up our science again. If only there was a way to get scientist to look at work a second time turning off intuition, ego, self-interest (conflicts of interest), and stop thinking the problem is with others not themselves. On second thought that too may be problematic; advancements may come too quickly for society’s ability to cope. Perhaps it’s a good thing and evolution's way of trying to prevent us from destroying ourselves?

  12. Gee, I can't for the life of me understand why Brian Cox gets cable air time on the all the science shows while Leonard Susskind and Lee Smolin remain total unknowns. It surely couldn't have anything to do with one's looks, could it? Nah.

  13. wow, burn on Brian Cox... I never like him anyway, he's just a popstar wannabe masquerading as a scientist.

  14. Thank you for the review, Sabine. So many books to read; so little time. Your guidance is much appreciated!

  15. I haven't read this book but I welcome your comments, Sabine. For many years, various theories have been touted as "fact" (i.e. as though firmly supported by evidence) by parts of the physics community. That then gets passed on through popular science and the press until some distorted version is believed by the majority of people. For instance, "parallel universes" arising from a suggestion of "multiverses", which in turn was a rather poetic description of mathematical scenarios.

    A deeper issue, which I'm sure you've already covered somewhere, is what equations "say" compared with what we think they say, and indeed whether a purely mathematical description of reality is sufficient. A good example (I believe) is any equation involving 'time' (even those of simple motion) compared with our interpretation of them -- a whole lot is added by us without so much as a blink.

  16. I share your sentiment Sabine, and then some.

  17. "Like that or not, modified gravity is the main competitor of particle dark matter. "

    I agree again. But again, like it or not, I don't see a reason to include it in this book.

  18. stor,

    Well, I have given you my reasoning while you don't seem to have any, so I don't see the point in continuing this exchange.

  19. "For me, the fascinating aspect of astrophysics and cosmology is that it connects the physics of the very small scales with that of the very large scales, and allows us to extrapolate both into the distant past and future of our universe. Even though I’m familiar with the research, it still amazes me just how much information about the universe we have been able to extract from the data in the last two decades. "

    I like what you wrote here. Sean Carroll talks about layers to reality, so you can see how relevant reductionism is when it comes to talking about the universe as this is incorporated into the story of its beginnings. Even to hypothesize it as microseconds as a foundation quest for greater depth and meaning.

  20. How about an article rant? Look at this
    My son has autism. Are we now going to question whether his condition isn't caused by a material defect in the brain? The brain is hard to understand because it's complex, not because of an interpretation problem with quantum mechanics.

    ...Reality has a quantum mechanics-hinted substructure active as intelligence.

    A telepath emerges, surrounded by 7.2 billion emitters. Said telepath flashes murderously insane at the NOISE! A telekinet emerges, and has a nightmare. The Earth (5.972×10^24 kg) collapses to an electron Fermi-degenerate (10^4 kg/cm³) ball 64.9 miles in diameter. Given Earth's 200,000-year pan-global religious pestilence, no sale.

    50 years of empirically sterile physics is Euclid navigating the Earth. A beautiful postulate contains a falsifiable flaw. Only observation external to rigorously derived theory can reveal the flaw. No observation external to rigorously derived theory is tolerated, for it is default wrong.

  22. What I find most surprising is that with the number of arguments for and against a purely gravitational effect the use of Hegelian epistemology (Héraclite in fact : thesis, antithesis, synthesis) does not prompt an author to express all the facets of the sitution and come to the conclusion that the truth probably lies halfway.

  23. hampered by insufficient computing power” Misdirected by “beautiful” truths.
    ...Relativity covers accelerating cosmic expansion.

    Trace chiral anisotropic spacetime torsion doping spacetime curvature covers baryogenesis, the Tully-Fisher relation, Chern-Simons correction of Einstein-Hilbert action. Supersymmetry (proton decay) and M-theory (10^500 vacua) demand empirically inexact symmetries. Physics is self-blinded to existing equipment observing through chemistry. Look. The worst it can do is succeed.

  24. Oh dear. You begin with seductive rapture, then a couple of gentle discreet corrections, and by the end you totally trash the book, kicking it to the curb. If one of the authors commits suicide I trust you will step forward and apologize to his wife and children, especially if inflation is proven correct.

    This why we have worked so hard to keep women out of science.

    I await your next review with bated breath.

  25. Zafa,

    At least Sabine remains consistent in the limit of the inconsistency of the facts. It is difficult to produce more inconsistency in the same paragraph, that is to say, to defend tolerance on the one hand, and on the other, the most vulgar misogyny. A inconsistent specialist is certainly worse than a coherent incompetent.

  26. Zafa: science needs reason to be trusted.

  27. Zafa Pi, I am sure Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw are big boys, rather than precious vulnerable snowflakes who will end their lives because Bee was mean to them. Surely they'll be able to handle some rhetoric.

    You, on the other hand, seem to be incapable to pass up an opportunity to put your hypocrisy and small-mindedness on display.

    It is good that Bee let this comment go through, as a little reminder of what kind of BS even the most qualified women, to this day, have to deal with.

  28. Guys,

    I appreciate your support, but I interpreted Zafa's comment as sarcasm. Even if it's not, it made me laugh. Having said that, I don't think I'm being "mean" to anyone. I read a book, I tell you what I thought about it, that's it. I'm sure Cox will get sufficiently many nice reviews from people who don't understand what the book is about. Best,


  29. It's refreshing Bee doesn't play the usual game of "I'll give your book a good review if you give my book a good review, and then I can stick one of your quotes on the back of my book" which everyone else seems to play.

  30. Everyone will hate my book anyway, I might as well just be myself ;)

  31. nicolas, john, Henning - You guys certainly put me in my place. Good work in defending the little lady, admirable but superfluous.

    Ms Hossenfelder - Your laughter was my intent as you suspected. I've long admired your clarity, insight, lack of BS, humor, and profile. However, your pouring cold water on NASA's glee in "proving" the existence of CDM via the observed lensing about the magic bullet was totally out of line. Your supposed defense of MOND is a sham; you were in it only for the big bucks that come from being the Devil's advocate. I'll bet your other fans missed that.

    On a serious note, perhaps you can tell me why luminaries such as Krauss, Greene, Carroll, and even Weinberg, and Feynman get away with saying, "the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states one can't simultaneously accurately measure the position and momentum of, say, an electron" when this is emphatically not the H.U.P.?

  32. Let's hope Zafa was indeed just sarcastic. I am probably over-sensitized as I spent way too much time on Scott Aaronson's blog, where after Trump's elections, you got a parade of blatant antisemitic posters on display.

  33. Zafa,

    Well, then my apologies for misunderstanding and thanks for clarifying that you are indeed a jerk. I have no idea what 'bucks' you are referring to, and I have never defended MOND - if you'd actually read anything I wrote, you should have noticed that I have repeated ad nauseam that modified gravity isn't the same as MOND. As to your question regarding the uncertainty principle, has it occurred to you that these gentlemen might know more about physics than you?

    Having said that, this is a book review and further comments that do not concern the topic of this post will not be approved.

  34. Your right, and I apologize. I need to stop the silly joking.

  35. Zafa,

    I did not defend Sabine who absolutely did not need me to do it but women in general ; "Laughter, like jesting, is pure joy, and therefore, provided it is not excessive, it's good by itself. And it is certainly a savage and sad superstition that forbids pleasure. On the other hand, the raillery which participates in hatred is reprehensible.", Spinoza.

    The sarcasm is not always humorous and like any form of irony, it requires an appropriate context. At Treblinka, in front of the gas chambers, the Nazis had stretched a curtain stolen from a synagogue, bearing the inscription in Hebrew: "This is the gate through which the Righteous enter."

  36. "The last time I thought of Brian Cox – before receiving the review copy of this book – it was because a colleague confided to me that his wife thinks Brian is sexy. I managed to maneuver around the obviously implied question..."

    This had me laughing out loud. And now enquiring minds must know, where would you place him on the curve? Clearly, Neil deGrasse Tyson is top shelf, and if Brian Greene would use a British accent he would completely remind me of one of Monty Python's "upperclass twit of the year" candidates.

    Personally (based entirely on his BBC presenter persona), I'd rate Cox a 7, but that's with deducted points for an obviously problematic ego -- I get the feeling Brian loves to hear Brian talk.

    Anyway, keep up the great writing.


  37. s.

    Well, thanks for the interest, but of course there's only one sexy man in the universe and that's the man I'm married to.

  38. Sabine,

    My own wife said exactly the same thing. Both of you must be right!


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