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Measuring the Universe: Our Historic Quest to Chart the horizons of Space and Time

Kitty Ferguson
Walker & Company
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Mary Shepherd
, on

Measuring the Universe is a pleasantly readable book that chronicles the human attempt to measure and make sense of the universe. It addresses the question of how it is possible to measure something indirectly. It begins with Eratosthenes and his attempt in the third century BC to measure the circumference of the Earth, and continues through to the relatively recent ideas of Stephen Hawking for measuring the size and age of the universe. The book was enjoyable to read when I turned off my mathematical curiosity. It is very historical in nature, describing not only the leaps in thought at various times in the past, but also the social and political landscape of the times when the various insights occurred or became accepted. I particularly enjoyed the discussion about the Copernican revolution. Yet I often wanted to see some of the math behind the different calculations. I wanted to see the math Eratosthenes used to calculate the circumference of the Earth, the old methods of calculating longitude and parallax, and the different methods to calculate distances to stars and galaxies.

The further I read the more I wanted to see some math in the book--not fuzzy generalizations for the math phobic, but real math and labeled diagrams and problems with real numbers worked out or with enough detail so that I could work them out myself. Then, on page 270, a formula appears at the top of the page in bold print. It is the formula for omega, the mass density of the universe. Yes! Some math and an explanation of each term in the formula! Reading further on the page, though, my heart sank on seeing the following series of statements referring to the formula:

At the risk of sending a great many readers running for cover, here . . . is the formula for omega. Consider it a souvenir, something a patient reader is owed for having made it so far with this book. We will not proceed to solve it.

This series of statements seems to say that the author believes that mathematics is just too hard for most people to understand or enjoy. I realized then that the entire book has been written from this point of view. The history seemed good but I wanted more mathematics and less fuzzy arguments. This is not really a book for historically-minded mathematicians, and I think it is not for the math phobic either. I feel it reinforces the idea that avoidance of math at all costs is an admirable quality.

Mary Shepherd ( is Assistant Professor at SUNY College at Potsdam in Potsdam, New York. Her special interests include differential geometry and mus

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