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Ulf Danielsson, Stjärnor och äppelen som faller: en bok om upptäcker och märkvärdigheter i universum (Stars and Falling Apples: a book of discoveries and remarkable facts about the Universe)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2003. ISBN: 9100101389

Reviewed by Peter Hogg in SBR 2004:2


In the space of ten short chapters and in a style that is a model of lucidity, Ulf Danielsson, a professor of physics at Uppsala, guides the lay reader on a rapid tour through the history of cosmology, from ancient theories to those most recently propounded. In order to illustrate some of the more abstruse scientific notions, he quotes passages from Goethe, Poe, Lewis Carroll and many other poets and writers, adding very clear explanatory “stories” of his own with characters drawn from Swedish children’s stories.
If Danielsson has one over-arching motive for writing this book it must be the one expressed in the preface. The progressive destruction of all pre-scientific world views during the last century and a half has created an ideological vacuum for millions of people, which he hopes to fill in part by encouraging a sense of wonder at “how unfathomably marvellous the real world is”. Despite his own infectious enthusiasm for his subject, success in that aim will, of course, depend on subjective factors that differ from reader to reader.
What the author has, nonetheless, triumphantly achieved is an extremely clear introduction to such matters as the history of astronomy, the behaviour patterns of time and space, the relativities of physical forces and the classification and odd naming of elementary particles. Also new cosmological concepts such as “black holes”, “string” and “matrix” theory and “dark matter”, in which the lay reader still feels safely on board the roller-coaster at the end of the ride!
Precisely for such readers, however, it would have been useful if the publishers had added a selective index. In such a brilliantly written and attractively designed work of scientific popularisation, it is a sad sign of the continuing neglect of factual editing by contemporary publishers that errors in areas outside that of the author’s specialisation were allowed to remain uncorrected. Referring to the Council of Nicaea (here spelt “Nicae”), for example, the presiding emperor is said to have been Marcus Aurelius! Ptolemy I was a Macedonian, not an Egyptian; nor did the medieval Norse colony in Greenland disappear around 1350. Et tu, Bonnier!
On its own ground, however, the work is a genuine tour de force.

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