Science

A History of the Universe in 100 Stars (2022): Book Review

By Florian Freistetter (trans. Gesche Ipsen), Quercus, £9.99, pbk, 319 pp, ISBN 978-1-52941-015-0

Review by Duncan Lunan

(First published in Concatenation, online, 15th September 2022)

This book consists of 100 chapters, each 2-3 pages long, and each supposedly covering a single star, not in alphabetical order or by constellation, which is how beginners’ books usually do it.  It’s like Christopher Priest’s early novel Fugue for a Darkening Island, in which the short numbered segments were not in numerical order.  As you read it, the various plot strands became completed and joined up, until with sufficient concentration, it all came together at the end.  100 Stars takes a similar approach:  the chapters are numbered consecutively, but not sequentially. 

“You can open it at any chapter you like and immerse yourself in a partial story of the universe – each chapter has been conceived such that it can be read independently of the others.  Or you can start at the beginning and read through to the end, and with each story delve deeper into the secrets of the universe.” 

And although it requires a similar feat of memory to Fugue’s, if you do that you will have absorbed a comprehensive introduction to astronomy by the time you reach the end.

Fig. 1. Wolf 359, red dwarf at 7.9 ly, 2 possible planets, Klaus Hohmann, Wikipedia Public Domain

SF gets in with the chapter on Wolf 359, about which there’s little to say except that it’s a red dwarf star at 8 light-years, discovered by the German Max Wolf in 1919.  But it’s the scene of a decisive battle with the Borg in Star Trek:  Next Generation, 2367 AD.  Seemingly the star appears in more than a dozen books, films and games, including the Perry Rhodan series, for whom Freistetter has kind words, presumably for nationalistic reasons.  But given the popularity of the series in Europe;  probably it has indeed inspired large numbers of Europeans to take up space science, as Jules Verne did for Robert Goddard and Edgar Rice Burroughs for Carl Sagan.

To achieve both his aims, Freistetter has had to make some compromises.  Most chapters are indeed about individual stars, well chosen so their characteristics can introduce more general topics.  But he stretches the point by including planets as ‘wandering stars’, comets as ‘hairy stars’ and meteors as ‘falling stars’.  Strangely he doesn’t include asteroids as ‘little stars’, and they appear only to describe the importance of their stellar occultations.

Asterisms are also included – groupings of stars, mostly modern, which don’t make up whole constellations, or which include stars from several.  His examples include the Plough in Ursa Major, Orion’s Belt, the ‘Coathanger’ in Sagittarius and the Pleiades as ‘the Seven Sisters’  (Fig. 2).  Strangely he doesn’t mention the Winter Triangle of Betelgeuse, Sirius and Procyon  (going back to at least 600 BC), nor the Summer one of Vega, Deneb and Altair, devised in the 1950s and enthusiastically promoted by Patrick Moore.  Instead, rather strangely, Freistetter features the Spring Triangle of Arcturus, Spica and Regulus (Fig. 3), of which I’d never heard.  There might have been some nationalistic element there, but the Spring Triangle is credited to Henry Neely (1879-1963), who was born in Ireland and died in the USA.  I looked it up online and then went out to check.  It’s a bigger triangle than its counterparts, and less distinctive, because it’s not equilateral like the Winter Triangle, nor isosceles like the Summer one.  (There is an alternative Spring Triangle of Arcturus, Spica and Denebola, which is equilateral;  but as Denebola is well fainter than the other two, it doesn’t grab the attention – Fig. 4.)

Fig. 4. The alternative Spring Triangle (Space.com)

Not being a beginner, for me one of the tests of an astronomy book is what I learn from it that I didn’t previous know.  There’s a rich harvest in this book, 21 things in all, and to organise the notes I had to classify them into ‘historical’ and ‘contemporary’.  There’s space to give just one example of each, here.

Historical:  on September 3rd, 1457, a lunar eclipse was observed at Melk, Lower Austria, by George von Peuerbach  (first dedicated astronomy professor at University of Vienna)  and Regiomontanus  (Johannes Müller of Königsberg).  Existing clocks weren’t accurate enough for the purpose, but of course the motions of the stars were known precisely, so they timed the phases of the eclipse by observations of Alcyone, the brightest star in the Pleiades.  The results revealed the inadequacy of the classical tables, based on Ptolemaic Theory, which von Peuerbach was already working on.  After his death in 1461 the work was completed by Regiomontanus, and later taken up by Copernicus, leading to the heliocentric theory which bears his name.

Fig. 5. Pleiades names

Contemporary:  the lithium content of the Population 1 star BPS CS 22948-0093, 7000 ly from us in the outer Milky Way, is 2-3 times too low for current theories of the origin of lithium in the Big Bang, let alone for subsequent enrichment of Population 1 by supernovae or colliding neutron stars.  It may be a fluke, or it may lead to a new branch of astrophysics.  As is often said, the two most important words in the history of science are, “That’s odd”.

I also look out for mistakes, and I haven’t found any this time.  There is one obvious misprint, where the mass of the Galaxy’s central black hole is given as ‘4.1 times the mass of the Sun’.  But to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke’s introduction to Reach for Tomorrow, what’s a factor of a million among friends?

To sum up, I wouldn’t recommend this book to an absolute beginner in astronomy:  there’s a lot here to take in.  But for anyone who already has one or more of the beginner’s books, I would strongly recommend it as a companion volume.

Florian Freistetter (trans. Gesche Ipsen), Quercus, £9.99, pbk, 319 pp, ISBN 978-1-52941-015-0