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34 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on 3 March 2003
This is a truly excellent introduction to cosmology for specialist and non-specialist alike. It is non-mathematical and so may be read by anyone, but the overall cover is so good, in my opinion, that it would prove an ideal first read for both undergraduates and postgraduates. All the main topics are covered; the big problems facing us are all highlighted, but what makes this book stand out is the total lack of arrogance displayed by the author. When dealing with something which is not established fact, he gives his opinion but makes it absolutely clear that it is just that - his opinion! This is in marked contrast to the attitude displayed in most texts and is certainly contrary to the policy adopted by some popular scientific journals, which seem to establish a sort of 'perceived conventional wisdom' and refuse to publish anything which disagrees with that so-called wisdom. This book will certainly not lead the interested amateur astray, but will present both facts and theories and leave the reader to make up his own mind over matters which are still open to question.
I would urge anyone with an interest in cosmology to buy this book and read it . However, be warned; physically it is a little book but, to gain the maximum from reading it, it is definitely not a quick read! Read it, digest it and enjoy! It really is worth the effort!
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on 9 December 2010
I found this to be a very useful introduction to Cosmology - though the concepts are notoriously difficult to understand, Coles writes well and covers all the basics. The history of the study of cosmology is outlined, and relativity and quantum mechanics given equal weight.
However, readers should be warned that, having been published in 2001, the book is a little out-of-date now - Coles often refers to forthcoming studies which have now been completed, and to mysteries about which we know a lot more - the value of Omega and "shape" of space, for example. The book was also written at a time when the notion that the expansion of the universe is accelerating was new, and Coles therefore often writes on the assumption that the expansion of the universe is slowing down - which we now know not to be true. Dark energy, another new concept at the time, is not mentioned by name, only as a new theoretical notion of "vacuum energy", and string theory is also given just one paragraph.
I would suggest going on to read "Galaxies: A Very Short Introduction", which updates much of the information in this book. I would also suggest Michio Kaku's "Parallel Worlds", the first few chapters of which provide an excellent overview of cosmology and which also discusses string theory, as well as Stephen Hawking's "The Grand Design", which summerises much of current understanding.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 7 August 2005
Laymen's guides to physics usually resort to metaphors that are seriously misleading. The alternative is a highly mathematical approach that is inaccessible to most readers. Coles manages to simplify without misleading. Actually, some basic knowledge of physics is assumed, at least if you want a full understanding of what is being said, but it is never beyond high school level and most of the book does not require even that.
Covering relativity, quantum theory, particle physics and much else, this is a perfect introduction to a vast and profound topic. My only complaint: cosmology is a fast-changing subject. A new edition is needed very soon.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on 14 January 2002
This book lives up to its title as a very short introduction. It covers the history of cosmological ideas including the great astronomical discoveries and theoretical triumphs of the 20th century. It also brings up the questions that are baffling todays cosmologists, the Hubble Constant, Omega, quantum-gravity, dark matter etc.
The introduction is non-mathematical and can be appreciated by non-scientists. There are relevant diagrams and photographs. Ideas are expressed clearly and logically. The book is an ideal starter for anyone interested in this exciting subject.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 26 March 2009
This is an outrageously well-written and FUN book covering the biggest topic it is possible to imagine (in our physical world, at least).

The VSI format is well-established and the publishers choose their writers carefully. I am not a cosmologist so I have no idea where Peter Coles stands in any sort of pecking order of those specialists, but he is the perfect choice to make this (potentially) difficult topic easily accessible to anyone willing to engage with it. Technical terms and jargon are ruthlessly eschewed in favour of transparent clear writing. The sheer wonder involved in considering the Universe we inhabit is effortlessly painted, without ever losing a sense of playfulness and humility (i.e. there are a lot of things even the best cosmologists do not understand, but we are trying our best).

I can assure potential readers that this is ACCESSIBLE and FUN. Bravo to Peter and all concerned!

As a rider, an excellent companion volume for those with their appetite whetted by this book - do not fail to read "Galaxies: A Very Short Introduction" by John Gribbin. John is of course a well-known general science writer but he was an astrophysicist (or some such) first. A great book.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 26 September 2012
I bought this book as an initial prop for moving on to more complete accounts by Brian Green and L. Krauss, etc. However its content written circa 2001 is showing its age already. While I found Cole's book readable it left the same old gaps other books leave regarding early inflation , vacuum energy, dark matter etc basically all the ideas that are desperately trying to save the standard cosmological model from complete collapse and which cosmologists probably don't understand themselves or generally agree with.

If nothing else this little book confirmed my general take that Cosmology is in serious trouble and something's got to give - soon. If you can believe 'six impossible things before breakfast' current Cosmological models might be for you others might wonder for how much longer cosmologists, in propagating these ideas, should continue to be taken seriously. This is of course the problem with the subject itself not with the book or the author.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 23 December 2009
I like this book, and several others in the series of "Very Short Introduction to...". I read some relevant chapters on the way to a talk on Highest Energy Physics at the Science Museum in London and found that my brief grounding from a chapter or two proved very useful.

These book are compact and therefore easy to carry, so there's no excuse for not taking one or two with you on the train or whatever.

My one criticism is that this particular volume on cosmology is a few years old (2001) and should be updated. Several important developments have taken place since its publication and these should be included in a new edition.

I own five of the books in this series and I like them all. This is a good one to accompany the one on Galaxies. The Astronomy one is only about the HISTORY of Astronomy, which is very interesting, but not about current developments.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 3 May 2011
As a complete newbie to Astronomy, Cosmology, Nuclear physics etc., but feeling I might be interested in it, I found this book to be just a perfect introduction. Its writing style is simple but non-patronizing, and introduced the topics in a logical sequence that keeps the reader's interest going throughout, but does not get bogged down in detail. Clearly there are topics which are only lightly covered and I found myself wanting more depth, but recognizing the ethos of the series this is only to be expected. It was sufficiently challenging that it can stand a second reading, and overall it has given me a real taste for the subject. I have already recommended it to a couple of friends, and will now look for texts which go a bit further.
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on 20 March 2014
Of all branches of all the physical sciences, cosmology is by far the most far reaching. As far as we know for certain, biology is a science that is restricted to just one planet, in one solar system, in one galaxy, in one cluster of the universe. Yet cosmology is concerned with all those other planets, in other solar systems, in other galaxies, in other clusters. In short, it's about as close to a study of everything that we reasonably have a name for. This is a far cry from the social sciences, such as economics, which are wholly human inventions and have no basis in nature. It's this broad scope that has always fascinated me, though I admit this blog doesn't always reflect the amount of time I spend thinking about it and marveling at it.

So how can Peter Coles, in 127 pages, do justice to such a vast topic? He begins with beginnings. He gives us an overview of how past civilizations have thought of what we would now refer to as the universe, or cosmos or heavens. In particular, the idea of how they came to be. After all, it seems a very human question to ask "how did this all begin". The wealth and breadth of information that could be covered by any number of creation myths throughout history would be enough to fill the space Coles had available many times over. So he was given a tough hand to play with, knowing what to leave out and what level of detail to include. What he gives us is a few interesting pages that will require significant follow-up on the part of the interested reader. Only in chapter 2 does he really get motoring.

So it is that we jump straight into Einstein's general theory of relativity. This he does by wordy explanation and a few diagrams, all of which will be familiar to those who have studied the subject before. But this is an introduction and it should be accessible to the non-expert reader. In this, Coles does very well, I think. He avoids getting bogged down in too much detail. Though some readers may wonder "how do they know that" I can say that the answer lies in the mathematical detail from which we are spared. This is an inherent problem in any science writing, but Coles deals with it as well as anyone could reasonably be expected to.

From the basic equivalence of gravitation and acceleration, he looks at some of the large scale geometry of the universe and the principles of symmetry and isotropy. All this is laying the groundwork for a later chapter, though first he moves away from some of the theoretical side, which had been the focus so far, onto the experimental side. Specifically, this was the work of Edwin Hubble on the redshifts of galaxies.

I would imagine almost any reader who is interested enough to pick up the book will have some assumption or expectation that it will include the Big Bang at some point. In that, Coles doesn't disappoint us. What he does do though, is lead us along the historical path that (mostly) late 19th century into the 20th took. So having looked at the work of Hubble and Einstein he asks the reader "so what"? If we can show that the universe is expanding and, given what we know of general relativity, does this imply anything? It is this question to which the Big Bang is the answer we now give.

In his description, Coles takes in some important factors which may be new to some of the informed-but-not-expert readers, about particle physics and the unification of the forces of nature. Here, a very little quantum mechanics is thrown in, but not so much as to scare anyone off, hopefully. Interestingly, he makes reference here to the Higgs boson as the particle 'responsible' (if you will allow me such laxity with terminology) for mass. But it's worth noting that the book was first published in 2001 and so this section is already a little out of date. Indeed, with such an exciting, fast-moving science such as cosmology, one might almost hope or expect that any such book would be out of date soon. After a brief conversation with the author, he assures me that a revised version is the pipeline.

In some ways, the Big Bang is the highlight of the book. Or at least the climax of it. The early chapters led up to it while the later chapters show the consequences. In these, he looks carefully at the density of energy and matter in the universe, asking how this will affect the future of the universe. There is also a more astronomical take on cosmic structures, which is not something I got round to studying at university, but which is nonetheless fascinating and mind-boggling in its beautiful complexity.

The book closes almost with a recapitulation of the aims of Einstein in his later years. Here we return very much to the theoretical end of science (though some might harshly call it speculation) and ask questions about the unification of all known forces, as well as looking at the anthropic principles (strong and weak). The final chapter seems designed for the reader to ponder. These are open questions to which we don't have anything resembling a firm answer as yet. These are the questions which make us think, which make science interesting.

In giving his overview, Coles has done as good a job as anyone who had been tasked with such a feat might be expected. At the points where physics starts to overlap or infringe upon philosophy, some might disagree with his particular take, but that is no great criticism. Science is, after all, a human endeavour, subject to the whims and emphases we each put on it, even if that simply be in the questions we ask. For those who had not studied cosmology but were interested, then I would recommend it. For those who simply want to be a little more informed, this isn't a bad starting point, though there are plenty of references for further reading where one can get a little more depth than is covered here. I can't say it knocked my socks off, though that may come from over-familiarity with much of the topics covered, and they were done so in a "standard" way. So maybe not one for the expert reader. But good, nonetheless.
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on 9 April 2012
This is the first book I've read from Oxford University Press' A Very Short Introduction series. Launched in 1995, there are now over 300 in the range covering topics as diverse as Advertising and Wittgenstein, Christianity and Witchcraft. Each volume is reassuringly thin which must make even the more daunting topics seem accessible even before one starts reading.

The book on Cosmology is written by Professor of Theoretical Astrophysics at Cardiff University, Peter Coles. His previous works include textbooks on the subject as well as popular science books on both Einstein and Stephen Hawking.

A Very Short Introduction to Cosmology is not the same as Cosmology Made Simple - a trick I imagine it would be impossible to pull off, even if this were the intention. Instead it takes a systematic approach to explaining the development of Cosmological thought through history and of Cosmology as a subject in its own right. It then moves on to explain the concepts that underpin our understanding of the universe (with understandable emphasis on Einstein) before explaining some of the problems presented to the current models in obtaining data (and, indeed, by some of the observed evidence) and some of the proposed solutions.

Central to the book is the Big Bang, which Coles is at pains to talk of as a Model, rather than a Theory. The difference being that theories should be self-contained whereas models can contain variables. Given that the normal laws of Physics seem to break down at the temperatures and high-energy states anticipated by the model, there are a great deal of variables and this seems a suitably cautious approach. Cosmologists cannot be dogmatic.

Indeed, Cosmological thought has a number of inherent uncertainties - not just those caused by the lack of visibility of the first moments of the universe but also those ingrained in Quantum Theory by the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. This is the principle that if you know the position of a particle, you cannot know its speed and vice-versa. The same can be said of the relationship between energy and time.

The book tackles the uncertainty principles - along with concepts such as wave-particle duality - with aplomb in short straightforward paragraphs that help build the reader's understanding bit by bit. Care is taken in explaining the more abstract concepts so that, even if these remain opaque to the lay-man, the issues they raise are clear.

The last chapter seeks to sum up the current state of play as well as to examine the challenges which face Cosmologists. The hope is to achieve a unified theory that will explain the observed evidence and overcome some of the problems in our current understanding. In particular, this will involve uniting our understanding of Gravity with the other fundamental forces - the Electromagnetic and the Weak and Strong Nuclear forces.

Overall, this is a great primer on one of the more challenging areas of human understanding and thought. I felt I understood the concepts as the were presented (although I may have struggled with the retention of multiple concepts, as the book went on.) Having read Simon Singh's Big Bang and Hawking's Brief History of Time (as well as seeing the ubiquitous Brian Cox on telly), some of the material was familiar. Singh's book is, perhaps, an easier read but this is a more rigorous and expansive explanation of the topic. If you're at all interested in the origins of the universe, you could do worse than start with this book.
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