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Review: The Universe: A Biography

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The Universe: A Biography
by Paul Murdin
Thames & Hudson, 2022
hardcover, 304 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-0-500-02464-5

There’s no shortage of biographies in the space field. There are biographies of astronauts and cosmonauts, of engineers and administrators, and of scientists and businesspeople. But none, by definition, can be as expansive as a biography as the universe.

That’s the conceit, at least, of The Universe: A Biography by Paul Murdin, a professor emeritus at the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy. His career has focused on supernovae, neutron stars, and black holes, including being one of the astronomers who discovered that the X-ray source Cygnus X-1 was a black hole. Here, he offers a high-level overview of the origins and development of the universe, from the Big Bang to life on Earth.

“For constant thrill I’d hand it to journalism, but for lasting satisfaction, give me astronomy!”

Murdin offers a basic chronological overview of the universe, starting with the Big Bang and working through its early development, including the “dark ages” and “cosmic dawn.” He then turns his attention to our own galaxy’s formation and development, and in turn that of our solar system and of Earth. He concludes with an examination of how the Earth, solar system, galaxy, and universe might all end.

Murdin tries to balance the science with the people who made the discoveries, discussing the science without getting into too much advanced detail while offering biographical sketches of some of the astronomers involved in that work. The latter offers a few hidden gems, like this quote from Adelaide Ames, a research assistant for astronomer Harlow Shapley in the early 20th century who took the job after studying journalism in college: “For constant thrill I’d hand it to journalism, but for lasting satisfaction, give me astronomy!”

However, if you’re already familiar with the basics of astronomy, The Universe: A Biography doesn’t add a lot. There are no new insights or schools of thought that Murdin offers in the book. The tone of the book is fairly plain and he doesn’t offer any personal insights from his career in the field: the discovery of Cygnus X-1, for example, is included but he doesn’t talk about his work that helped show it’s a black hole.

For a newcomer, perhaps, this book is a good introduction to astronomy and related fields as it narrows down from the universe to the Earth. For others, though, the book is a biography of a “life” we’re already familiar with.

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