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

April 27, 2015 | By | Reply More

The authors Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest should be familiar to people in the UK as being astronomers and astrophysicists and that ‘The Secret Life Of Space’ is about the cosmos and not some covert activity in the spare room. What you have instead is a history of how the Earth ceased to be the centre of the universe and just a small planet orbiting an unimportant star to get you into the mood for the rest of the book. Man has always paid some attention to the night sky and whether it is the likes of Stonehenge co-ordinating the seasons or to the ancient Antikythera Mechanism that was cog driven to pin-point planetary movement you are going to end up with a lot of intimate knowledge.

Interestingly, the authors explain why the Babylonians took to using base 60 not from a distance point of view but the trigonometry measure from of divisions in a circle as they divided 360 into easier measures to count. There is also an explanation to how the different number of days in the months happened and although they don’t say it, why your time machine has limits on its timer in going into the distant past because it took several centuries to sort things out. More so, when for one year, there was 445 days to correct the numbers to start counting in 45BC. Likewise, if you never knew quite why we have a leap year, it’s because nothing is set in even precise numbers. Although I’m familiar with that, I often wonder why time wasn’t divided up into different divisions for a different counting system but from what they say, this wouldn’t account for the inexact length of day and how it changes over a year.


If you ever wondered why large telescopes use refractors than lens to study the sky, it’s all down to weight that can be supported. Then again, these refractors were all metal so the weight is understandable.

There is some discussion about Pluto’s recent status drop to being a dwarf planet with a hint that there might actually be something a little bigger in the Kepler Belt to out-qualify it. About the only thing they didn’t touch on is why one of the Voyager One spacecraft is veering off slightly as it leaves the solar system.

Just to satisfy potential SF writers amongst you, the discussion here about the various sized stars, super-novas, nebulas, pulsars and even black holes will surely whit your appetite. Some of the exotically described planets will also prove you can’t imagine the real stuff that’s out there. The forecast of black holes was originally made in 1755 so even that isn’t exactly a newly recognised phenomenon. I had to give a slightly wry smile that neither author recognised the name of a 1970 Kenya launched satellite seeking x-rays was named Uhuru and not recognise the name of a certain famous communications officer.

Some information is just reminders of things forgotten. I mean, take Fred Hoyle being linked to the Big Bang. He came up with the term but didn’t believe in it, believing that the universe was a static entity. Something I must have missed over the years is that the discoverer of dark matter was a Swiss man called Fritz Zwicky. With a name like that, how can you ever forget him again? There’s also a strong reminder that there is still room for the amateur astronomer to find something new in the night sky. It is, after all, a big place and the massive telescopes can’t comb the entire sky. If you want an answer as to people as to why we should pay attention to outer space, the chapter on meteorite impacts on Earth should put a shiver through your body. Most meteorites are small enough to burn up in the atmosphere but the Chelyabinsk crash in 2012 should remind everyone just how lucky that miss was. They even explore the revived SETI programme and whether there is other life in the universe. With so many planets and galaxies out there, it would be foolish to say it isn’t possible but I suspect it would only be distance that would keep any from visiting. I suspect that when we ever discover an alien signal then it would truly change how we perceive the universe.

This is a fascinating book with a lot of useful information. If you haven’t picked up an astronomy book before or want to add one to your collection, then this isn’t a bad choice. The authors don’t bog you down by getting too technical and also reveal why the cosmos is so fascinating. If you catch their enthusiasm and how people have always been interested in knowing what’s out there, then they’ve done a good job. Now, how can I stay around long enough to see the Milky Way pass through the Andromeda Galaxy?

GF Willmetts

April 2015

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

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About UncleGeoff

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’
If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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