Popular Science Books Cosmic Imagery Revie Key Images John Barrow Review History Science Barrow

John D. Barrow is one of the most passionate popularisers of science, and he’s also one of the most noticeably filled with wonder and joy of the discovery and capable of transmitting this joy and wonder to his readers.

Cosmic Imagery is veritably filled with such wonder, and following the old adages of one picture being worth a thousand words and each picture telling a story, it’s subtitled key images in the history of science: each of the eighty nine essays making up the book indeed has an image as a starting point.

The variety of images is astonishing: from photography of the deep space to Van Gogh’s paintings, from electron microscope images to the Gaussian curves, ancient Indian dice to Pascal’s triangle, Einstein’s face to the Crab Nebula; Barrow explores the history and achievement of science through the medium of the visual and emphasises the importance of the visual, not only in natural science disciplines but also in such seemingly abstract endeavours as theoretical physics and mathematics itself. Barrow emphasises the importance of the visual in science, both for explanatory purposes and as a way of thinking and gaining insight: the famous thought experiments of the theoretical physicists are usually if not always accompanied by a simple drawing or diagram (cf the rough drawing of Schrdinger’s cat in a box (cat still alive).

Some of the images have a truly iconic status: everybody (or at least, everybody who is likely to pick up the book) would recognise the Mandelbrot Set, the Mbius strip, the light-map of the world at night or the Da Vinci man gracing the cover. Others are less obviously recognisable, and some seem downright obscure, but all are genuinely fascinating.

The mixed-bag character of the collection allows Barrow to take the reader from the smallest possible dimensions of the quantum world to the largest scales of the galaxies and the whole Universe, although most of the images come from the hard sciences and mathematics, and natural sciences only figure in limited scope this is not surprising though, as key imagery of living things could fill another book of similar size by itself (why not make one after this one?).

Cosmic Imagery is divided into four sections, starting with one devoted to literally ‘cosmic images’ of space, our planetary system, far away galaxies and stars as well as diagrams helping us to understand cosmological theories: the light cone, the inflationary universe and so on. The second part explores the way humans map and depict the world around them and their own bodies: what we want to say through pictures and what can be revealed. This is probably my favourite section, as it contains many a strange and wonderful map and provides a bridge between the developments of science and art. The third part, I suspect particularly dear to Barrow’s heart, concerns mathematical imagery and might perhaps appear the most arcane and the driest, but still contains a wealth of fascinating facts; while the last part concentrates on images that scientists made themselves to organise, explain and explore their discoveries (and throws in some others, from the mushroom cloud to the sand pile).

You can see how addictive Cosmic Imagery is: I intended to give just a few examples of essay subjects and images used, and I am on the way to summarise the whole lot. But then rarely had I felt such a need to say you simply have to see it for yourself.

Cosmic Imagery comes as a big, beautifully produced hardback, with a thick, glossy paper and with hundreds of illustrations, which brings to mind, especially at this time of the year, all coffee table books and picture collections with cursory text that abound among Christmas offerings. But it’s so much more than that!

The visuals (there are many more than eighty nine images as each essay is illustrated with several pictures) and the text work in a brilliant balance to engage and explain. Every picture tells a story, yes, but every of those pictures also needs its story told and John D. Barrow tells those stories admirably: he manages to make the diverse disciplines covered by Cosmic Imagery endlessly fascinating, to share his own sense of wonder, and to use his wit, impressive erudition (I love the quotes preceding each essay) and ability to make things as simple as possible, but not simpler to intrigue and inspire.

Perfect and of course highly recommended.