Magic Universe

Nigel Calder

Nigel Calder is, first and foremost, an editor of science periodicals and a narrator of British TV documentaries regarding science. Secondarily, he is the author of a dozen or so books on point. His 750-page “Magic Universe” (MU) is misleadingly sub-titled, “Oxford Guide to Modern Science”, as published shamelessly by Oxford University Press in 2003. At first blush, MU appears to be a potentially useful reference tool, an encyclopedia of scientific terms with topics well arranged from A to Z.

Upon closer inspection, it is a light-hearted spoof of science with sporadic serious messages and occasional flatly erroneous data (e.g., the galaxies are speeding away from each other at a speed greater than the speed of light – a feat held impossible by the scientific community). MU leaps from atoms to the Big Bang to volcanic eruptions to ecology and every imaginable sub-science. The reader can read the book like a dictionary, and jump about to his/her heart’s content, searching for topics of interest. This dogged and unimaginative reader read it, of course, from A to Z, and in that precise order, fearing that I would miss some priceless kernel of wisdom.

Calder was guilty of writing Einstein’s Universe, some years ago, which I read recently and found confusingly organized and sloppily presented and sometimes inaccurate. In MU, he has continued in that tradition. To be fair, there are some very entertaining bits of data. He muses, for example, “It was only your proximity to the Big Bang that determined whether you evolved as a planet, a parakeet -- or you.” Consider also Bernal’s Law, wherein that 20th Century physicist opined that scientists are so reluctant to accept new data that they do so in four halting steps: (1) The new theory is incorrect. (2) It may be correct, but it is unimportant. (3) It may be important, but it isn’t original. (4) It may be original, but it has always been my position. Then, too, he offers some expanded slants: Parallel universes exist all around us but are hidden from our view, because they exist in dimensions of space and time that are different from our own – a novel thesis supported by Hawking and the esteemed Andre Linde.

Unfortunately, if the reader has not read some basic books on the universe (such as, Hawking’s Brief History of Time, Bryson’s Brief History of Almost Everything, Greene’s Elegant Universe), he/she will have great difficulty following the author’s on-again, off-again humorous to serious facts and conclusions. MU fails as a scientific reference work, because too much of its data is frivolous and offered tongue-in-cheek; it fails as light reading, because too much of it contains abstruse and highly technical parlance and references, which do little more than waste the reader’s time; perhaps worst of all, it fails as airplane reading, because it weighs more than most suitcases. Sadly, this reader cannot recommend this book or anything by Calder. Two strikes justifies an “out” to time-constrained readers. This further demonstrates the danger of buying books by famous people who are not professional writers.