Astronomer’s new popular science book reveals our “invisible universe”

The "Invisible Universe by Matthew Bothwell. Credit: Oneworld Publications.

With the renewed interest in space by those who aren’t from a space-focused background, there are a lot of people who might end up overwhelmed. Even if you have a pretty good idea of what a satellite does and how it gets up into low Earth orbit, the sheer scope of space can easily leave you overwhelmed. 

Instead of poring over a dry textbook or trawling Wikipedia, you may want to consider Dr. Matthew Bothwell’s new book, The Invisible Universe. Bothwell is an astronomer and science communicator at the University of Cambridge.

The Invisible Universe

The Invisible Universe is an engaging work of popular science that helps to introduce cosmology to a lay audience. Beginning with an introduction to light and the ways that we use it to witness the visible cosmos, Bothwell quickly moves to less straightforward means by which we apprehend the Universe. 

He delves into the infrared and ultraviolet parts of the spectrum, explaining how objects that are invisible in the wavelengths we can see can “glow” in the infrared, allowing infrared cameras and telescopes to see them clearly and easily. He explains spectroscopy, and how the arrangement of electrons in atoms creates visible “bands” in light that can be used to understand the chemical composition of faraway objects. 

One startling fact that Bothwell revealed was how a massive molecular cloud, Sagittarius B2, contains billions of litres of ethyl alcohol and of ethyl formate — the chemical that gives raspberries their taste. This has caused scientists to speculate that the chemicals that created life on Earth may be commonplace in the universe.

From there, the book goes deeper into the parts of the universe we can’t see. Microwave radiation is used to show us the beginnings of the universe, while radio waves give us hugely valuable information from Pulsars and reveal how the cosmos is awash in hydrogen “dust” — so much of it that it outweighs all the matter in the universe that we can actually see. 

And, unusually for a popular science writer, Bothwell explores the absolute cutting edge of modern space science. He shifts from somewhat-familiar objects like black holes and galactic clusters to both dark matter and dark energy. They aren’t the same thing, as Bothwell reveals, discussing how “dark energy” is the force causing the universe’s accelerating expansion, while “dark matter” is thinly spread matter that interacts with gravity, but not electromagnetism, which is why we can’t see or touch it.

Like other well-regarded works in the field — like Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and James Burke’s The Day The Universe Changed — it frames scientific discoveries as historical events, and the accomplishments of real human beings. From 9th century Islamic scientist Ḥasan Ibn al-Haytham, the father of optics, through to the scientists and engineers that discovered gravity waves in 2015, Bothwell takes pains to ground the science in the experiences and struggles of the people who made it happen. 

In fact, the only times the book drags are the few times (especially early on) when it doesn’t make these connections, and becomes more didactic. But they pass quickly, moving on to (as one example) the scientist who found the first evidence of dark matter, and how his prickly personality slowed the community’s acceptance of the phenomenon.

Even beyond the basic cosmological knowledge, this book will likely help SpaceQ readers better understand the industry. The technologies used to scan the stars are often the same ones used for Earth observation, like infrared cameras and radar arrays. 

Stories of outsider scientific minds like British Parish Rector John Michell (the man who originally theorized the existence of black holes) serve as a good reminder that traditional scientists and engineers aren’t the only people who can contribute to space ventures. Meanwhile, the story of the team that discovered gravity waves at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory — and how only three people got a Nobel for the work of a thousand researchers — is a reminder that modern science is the product of many, many people, and not a few heroic individuals. 

Plus, the book can help readers grasp the sheer size and scope of space. The industry is constantly dealing with an environment that is profoundly alien to our day-to-day lives, both huge and empty. Even if you aren’t planning on traveling to Andromeda any time soon, understanding space will help people better understand issues like communication delays, travel times, and how seemingly-invisible radiation and gravity effects can have severe effects on space-based equipment. This knowledge can be useful for workers, founders, and investors alike, as the space sector continues to grow.

The hard cover version of The Invisible Universe will be released on December 7th, 2021 by Simon and Schuster. The digital and audio version are currently available on Amazon

For more coverage of books, film, and even games exploring space, check out the Culture section on SpaceQ. 

About Craig Bamford

Craig is a graduate of Carleton's Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He lives in Toronto.

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