Book Review: The Crowd and The Cosmos

10 October 2019

Related event: The Crowd and The Cosmos

Crowd-surf through the universe in this informative and fun frolic to infinity and beyond.

I’m a human biologist, and rather lapsed, so physics and the infinite properties of space have always baffled me. However, The Crowd and The Cosmos pulled me in and gave me whole new horizons on space and astronomy, and people and penguins too!

Lintott’s writing style is clear and easy to understand for the popular science reader as he explains that researchers now gather data at a rate that far outstrips their ability to analyse it, hence the growing population of volunteers around the globe each making an individual contribution. Science is a journey to build knowledge and understanding and The Crowd and The Cosmos makes it clear we can all get involved in a coffee break or bus stop queue. Yes, really. You too.

With a light-handed touch, a passion that shines through, and fun footnotes that made me chuckle, Lintott’s very human story is a gentle call to action that takes the reader from a childhood star-gazing in a Devonshire garden – and a particular evening during which he very nearly discovered something incredible because of a rather rickety tripod – to the far extremities of the space.

There’s plenty to learn within these pages about the shapes of galaxies, black holes, supernovas and the possibility of intelligent extra-terrestrial life. There’s even a touch of black magic: who knew you could turn lead into gold if only you had the equipment (a particle accelerator made from a 27-kilometre ring of superconducting magnets)?

This book is, however, much wider than the universe! Interspersed with red and blue galaxies arranged into celestial ‘cities’ or out in ‘the sticks’, serendipitous luminous supernovas and dark energy, a key conundrum in astrophysics today, you’ll find twirling dancers who play tricks on the eyes and fireworks, a Victorian network of naturalists, ships’ diaries from WW1, Welsh ghost slugs and zorillas in the zooniverse.

However, what really caught my imagination is the truly inclusive nature of ‘citizen science’ , and how it is being applied to research in all fields from the secret lives of artists to the world of Shakespeare; and there’s a whole chapter on Lintott’s rich experiences with the penguins in an icy Antarctic in whose conservation the crowd have played their part. And so, while a book about the Cosmos and its gigantic numbers might seem a daunting prospect to the lay man, these pages are an absolute pleasure to crowd-surf. It’s time to take to the waves.

Esther Lafferty, Communications Officer, IF Oxford 
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