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How We Know Everything We Know About the Universe: A Book Review of Ethan Siegel’s “Beyond the Galaxy”

May 25, 2016

I have spent my academic and professional life reading and writing about astronomy. From my undergraduate days as an astronomy major to graduate school in science journalism and then moving on to work as the press officer for NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory for over 15 years and writing popular science books, I have read many thousands of pages about astronomy.

 

Some books about our Universe are clearly meant to be textbooks, with jargon-filled explanations and pages covered in lengthy equations. Others seek to capture the fascination of the public with eye-catching visuals and dramatic narratives to lure in the reader.

 

Ethan Siegel’s new book, “Beyond the Galaxy” (published by World Scientific), is a fascinating piece of science writing that successfully walks the line down the middle of those two genres. In his preface, Siegel tells of his surprise at discovering there was no singular book that told the story of how we know what we know about the Universe when he went to teach his first college introductory astronomy course. Instead of lamenting the situation, Professor Siegel took it upon himself to right this cosmic wrong.

 

 

I imagine that reading “Beyond the Galaxy” is the best thing next to sitting next to Siegel and sharing an espresso or beer (or two) while he regales us with stories of how we’ve come to know everything that we know about the Universe. One of the most impressive aspects of this book is Siegel’s depth of knowledge of both the science and the people who helped discover it. Along the way, Siegel doesn’t shy away from theories that didn’t work. In fact, Siegel respectfully explains why some people might have stuck to idea that in hindsight we can say is wrong today. Such “dead end” theories are often left out when books cover the currently accepted ideas, though I personally think they paint the full and truer picture of how science is done when covered in a thoughtful way as Siegel does.

 

It’s clear that Siegel is a natural teacher and his writing is engaging, as many people may know by reading his blog, “Starts with a Bang”. Unlike many astronomy books (including many I’ve read), “Beyond the Galaxy” doesn’t stay clear of writing in the first person and with an active voice, allowing the reader to feel like he or she is part of a conversation – not simply the audience of a one-sided lecture.

 

While “Beyond the Galaxy” is perfect for any introductory astronomy course, I also see it as a wonderful read for the astronomy enthusiast who is looking for a complete tale of astronomy, from antiquity through today. There’s plenty of well-explained science in here for a reader of any background. I learned many things and gained new perspectives on pieces of information that I’ve had floating around in my mind for many years.

 

From the architecture of our Solar System (and how humans finally figured it out) to the mysteries of dark energy and the fate of the Universe (something we’re still working on), Siegel has got you covered. Pull up a chair and enjoy.

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