Book of the Month, October 2022 – How to Build a Universe by Brian Cox, Robin Ince and Alexandra Feachem

Hi, there. Maggie Shaw here, proud owner of Eregendal and author.

As a lifelong lover of reading, each month I choose one of my favourite books – and tell you all about it.

For October’s Book of the Month I have chosen How to Build a Universe by Brian Cox, Robin Ince and Alexandra Feachem (2017, 2018). Professor Brian Cox is a particle physicist and former keyboard player with the 1990s band D:Ream. Robin Ince is a comedian, writer and broadcaster. Alexandra Feachem is a BBC programme producer. Between them, they create and host the long-running BBC Radio 4 series The Infinite Monkey Cage, which was first broadcast in 2009 and takes a ‘witty and irreverent look at the world according to science’ (Independent).

I bought a paperback copy of this book because I enjoyed the pun implicit in the title. As a historical novelist, I do a lot of world building through the descriptions in my narratives. With my degrees in science and theology, and a love of humour, this seemed just my sort of read.

The content did not disappoint. From the ‘very special forward’ by Eric Idle, through the illustrations by Natalie Kay-Thatcher to the conversational structure in the chapters, the authors take the reader on a whirlwind tour of deep science in a style that still entertains as it informs and explains. Each chapter looks at a different aspect: (1) Introductions and Infinity; (2) Life, Death and Strawberries; (3) Recipe to Build a Universe; (4) Space Exploration; (5) Evidence & Why Ghosts Don’t Exist; and (6) Apocalypse. The book explores issues like the birth and death of the universe, with different theories of how it will end, the composition of matter and antimatter including the smallest particles identified so far, and whether human beings are the only creatures in the universe capable of observing and reflecting on the vast systems that had to form to create us. I particularly liked Robin Ince’s comment about ‘cosmic vertigo’, having myself experienced that feeling of total insignificance before the magnitude of creation: somehow, his defining the feeling diminished its power so that it no longer disturbs.

My only issue with this book was its internal design. Blocks of text were set in the smallest points and placed in sizeable areas of border, space which would have been better used by enlarging the print to make it more readable. Some text was printed against grey shading so dark it was even harder to decipher. Possibly, these issues came from reducing the original layout of the hardback version to fit into the smaller and cheaper A5 paperback reprint. If the publishers produce a follow-up, I would need to buy the original hardback version instead.

I had not heard of The Infinite Monkey Cage series of programmes before coming across this book, but after reading it, I shall certainly listen in the future. All the past programmes can be accessed through the BBC website – what a treat to explore now the clocks have gone back for winter.

So there we have it, October’s Book of the Month! Be sure to check back in November as I’ll be revealing another must read.

Take care,

Maggie x

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