The Secret Life Of Space by Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest (book review)

Oddly, when you bear in mind that both Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest are astronomers/astrophysicists, their latest book, ‘The Secret Life Of Space’, doesn’t actually start off there. The first thing they do is pull the rug from under you by proving things you thought were true aren’t. Chief of those is that Stonehenge isn’t actually a solar calendar and the supposition that it was wasn’t from druids but by freemason William Stukeley in 1740 and everyone believed it ever since. I wonder if those who go there for the two solstices will change their minds now? Then again, look at how beliefs rather than facts still rule our world.


Instead, you get a quick lesson in the opening chapters about how calendars were sorted out on Earth first. Actually, that is rather essential because religions saw the Earth as the centre of the universe where everything else revolved around it. This wasn’t a made-up belief as such because if you watch the night sky over a year, it does look that way. Well, except for some pesky larger stars that go their own way. It is from these that several astronomers worked out that the Earth went around the Sun. Meanwhile, time on Earth was worked out by the seasons. Not helped by the fact that people miscalculated badly on how the seasons worked out or the Moon having a different period in the sky. The authors make a strong point that why the months vary from 30 to 31 days is to have some match to the lunar month and keep things together. All of this is complicated by the Earth year not being a precise number and invariably got out of sync with what was happening.

Never let it be said that astronomy is science of a by-gone era, as Pluto and the Kuiper Belt were discovered late in the last century. I can also understand a bit more about Pluto’s small planet status. With its unusual orbit described here, it almost reminded me of a comet with the wide sweep it has into Neptune’s orbit. At some point, something must have really hit it and, by association, its moon, Charon, for six.

In fact, as the book progresses, you’re given a sharp reminder that advances in astronomy go hand in hand with advances in technology to make observation. The strongest feeling I got as I read on is the cosmos is a noisy place. Not only from residues from the original Big Bang but everything from pulsars to black holes, which appears to have their own distinctive hum. Let’s not forget that you also get a little basic science and how examining absorption lines, knowing the composition of stars is relatively easy. The more you understand what’s going on out there, the more you realise we’re only a very tiny part of a giant universe. Even so, until we find otherwise, Earth still looks like the only current home of sentient creatures, at least within our current time frame.

Something they said and practically contradict is that there isn’t room for solo scientists anymore and yet some talented amateurs like Tom Bopp have certainly showed there is. The sky is so huge that not everywhere or everything is watched out for and a lot falls under their net. If this is your inclination, know your subject first and who to contact for verification. Although not said as such, the authors do show how the process works. I found it even more remarkable how much can still be seen from Earth still but, then again, the likes of Hubble can only see so much at a time.

I should point out from the introduction, Heather Couper herself points out that there are a lot of female astronomers who are not always given the credit they deserve and this book does bring you up to speed on them. A good reminder that this isn’t a male-orientated science no matter how much it looks like that from time to time.

You’re also brought up to date with the search for dark matter and what it is supposed to be and after several books now I’m even learning how to spell Fritz Zwicky.

A lot of more current things are covered in detail, including the Mars and comet landings, the 2013 meteorite in Russia and the elusive search for extra-terrestrial life in any form. Something that did make me think again is the WOW! signal from 1977 is if it was something equivalent to an espionage burst signal (which is really a compacted message), why hasn’t anyone thought to expand it.

If you’re after a book to give you a basic grounding on astronomy in a well-written way, then ‘The Secret Life Of Space’ will show you that its less secret than you think. Watch the stars.

GF Willmetts

August 2015

(pub: Aurum Press. 298 page photo insert indexed hardback. Price: £20.00 (UK), $29.99 (US), $32.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-78131-393-0)

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