A cosmological bouquet

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The Book of the Cosmos: Imagining the Universe from Heraclitus to Hawking

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Perseus Publishing: 2000. 556 pp. $35, £21.50

Students are pleasantly surprised when they learn the etymology of 'anthology' — picking flowers from the meadows of a given subject. And this anthology on cosmology begins by noting another etymological kinship — that between 'cosmic' and 'cosmetic': both are related to order and beauty. So, what better, more vast and more challenging meadow than cosmology from which to pick your flowers, especially for someone like Dennis Danielson, who is both fortunate and bold enough to teach courses in the 'literature of cosmology'?

But what should the anthology consist of? Should the anthologist represent what grows in the meadow, his own tastes, or should he try to cater for those of the reader? Covering a vast range in time and tastes, as Danielson does here, seems a safe principle. The result is 85 chapters, each, according to Danielson, being a “telescope for the mind”.

The ancient Greeks are solidly and appropriately represented in the book, and some effort has gone into rendering their thoughts accessible to literature-of-cosmology students and general readers alike. The problem is, of course, that the Greeks, like Cicero in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, spoke Greek. In fact, this book is very much about translations into English, because most of mankind's contributions to cosmology were not originally written in English. The many translations in The Book of the Cosmos are clear and precise, and, impressively, some are by Danielson himself. Some are even of significant literary value, as in the contribution by the English translator Thomas Creech — “Lucretius ... De Rerum Natura Done into English Verse” (1683); a true gem.

In the context of translations, Danielson has missed a good opportunity here to correct the long-standing error in the translation of Galileo's Sidereus Nuncius as 'Starry Messenger'. Galileo himself wrote very clearly that Nuncius was intended to be as 'message', not 'messenger'.

Arab eye: the Muslim philosopher Averroës had ideas on cosmology that clashed with those of his culture. Credit: ARCHIVO ICONOGRAFICO, SA/CORBIS

The past is, by definition, politically correct. Arabs existed in the past (as they do today), and Arab thought, especially in astronomy and cosmology, is very much part of Western culture, as the names of many stars remind us every night. The Muslim philosopher Averroës, to quote but one, had strong ideas about cosmology. And because of them he ran into trouble with his own religious authorities, which went by the literal interpretation of the cosmological aspects of the Koran (also entirely neglected in Danielson's book). Considering the initial emphasis the book places on the Torah of the Jews, the absence of Arab authors and thought in this anthology gives an incomplete picture of our direct cultural inheritance.

Danielson does include some irritating digressions in his descriptions of the classics. Why, for example, do we read so much about Arthur Koestler in a chapter supposedly about the Greek philosopher Parmenides? And why should Galileo's translated words be interspersed with rather irrelevant quotes by the nineteenth-century astronomer Mary Agnes Clerke? They are far less acceptable than Danielson's own comments, which are not only required by the genre, but also quite useful.

The framework containing Nicolaus Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, John Milton, René Descartes, Isaac Newton and Immanuel Kant, and also Mary Agnes Clerke and all the others, is very useful. So, in general, is the choice of morsels presented.

Inevitably, though, things become more complex with contemporary twentieth-century cosmology. Opposing schools of diverse thought thrive in our global village, no longer truly 'Western' as the United States has come to embody global cultures. English, like Greek, Arabic, Latin and French before it, is now de rigueur , and this simplifies things. Deceptively so, however, because modern cosmology retains uncertainties and debates (origin of redshifts), and a diversity of voices, including non-Anglo-Saxon ones (where is tavarisc Zeldovich?) that don't make it onto the pages of this book. Well, as the Romans used to say, tot capita, tot sententiae [loosely, each to his own, especially his own taste]. As for the definition of 'book'. This is given in the glossary and is obviously much needed, as it can range from a “device which takes the form of bound pages” to “the universe”, as in “the book of the cosmos”.

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