Reviewed by Ian Lipke
It is understandable that Princeton University Press would want to re-publish Our Cosmic Habitat by Martin Rees, a book that first hit the shelves in 2001. This edition, labelled the Princeton Science Library, boasts a new preface by the author. This quickly arouses interest and sets the reviewer up in anticipation of what is to follow. The author does not disappoint once it is understood that this book was never meant to break new ground or argue a particular academic line. The book is a gentle but very comprehensive stroll through the world as most of us have never considered it.
A guess at the career of Martin Rees the author is likely to be, “Science writer for a major newspaper”, or “College lecturer with a strong set of authorial skills.” It was a surprise to find that this humble man is Astronomer Royal of Great Britain, a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and a former Director of the Cambridge Institute of Astronomy. His writing displays the freshness of the young scholar whose avid attention to all branches of knowledge exhorts all nearby to think about what they’re seeing. It is an infectious style whose authority is never doubted and whose breadth of perspective delights as it teaches.
The prologue is positioned immediately after the prefaces to the 2001 and 2017 editions. I could not wait to tackle this chapter whose title filled me with awe. “Could God Have Made the World Any Differently” was just the prompt I needed to set me reading. Talk of a short recipe leading 13 billion years later to such a complex cosmos as the world we inhabit is a deliberate switch-on for me. The homage to Albert Einstein shines through in one of his remarkable quotes: “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”
The chapters unfold with well-considered titles (From Big Bang to Biospheres is one of my favourites) introducing ideas that only the well-versed scholar could command. There is an introductory segment on the Sun, other solar systems, followed by other earths – a broad expose of the knowledge we possess about the cosmos as we immediately know it followed by something closer to us, earth and perhaps other earths as well. There is a gripping chapter on life and intelligence followed by a chapter on Atoms, Stars and Galaxies (introduced fittingly by the sub-heading ‘Starstuff’). This chapter includes a fascinating explanation in diagram form of the Big Bang; in fact, a feature of this book is the attention to producing diagrams that are both accurate and meaningful, yet no burden to understand.
Those inclined to hyperbole will be taxed to find superlatives for this book. Rees is inspired. He writes about awe-inspiring issues and phenomena and does not slip once. Somebody called him ‘confident, helpful, modest, and good-humoured’ (American Scientist), but where he differs from so many other writers is in his presentation, example after example, of insights that strike the reader as innovative, fresh and alive (yet are almost two decades old).
However, one disappointing thing about Our Cosmic Habitat is the fact that the book was written so long ago. It is disconcerting to read speculation that the Hubble telescope should last until 2010 when a modern reader knows that it is currently working and is not expected to falter until 2030 or 2040. In Chapter 8 there is a move into speculative comment that might have been made less obvious, but by and large these do not impact the book in any negative way. The language overwhelms any disappointment I may have felt with witty and uncomplicated prose that raised my interest in the prefaces and maintained it throughout. Probably most critics will have mentioned the image of two monkeys typing with abandon the same Shakespearean play – a truly funny way of describing probability.
I have written about only a small part of the book. The remainder maintains a high standard of scholarship, and retains the writing style that makes it such a pleasure to read. Witty, learned, informed, graceful, showing great breadth and depth of scholarship – where does one stop? I cannot recommend a book more highly.
By Martin Rees