Thursday, July 28, 2011

The cosmos rocker

Media Moment: Bang! book
Queen-related: Co-written by Brian

I picked up BANG! The Complete History of the Universe at the same time I ordered the Phil Sutcliffe book a few months ago.

Although I haven’t read the book cover to cover, I did read the first two chapters in their entirety before flipping through the remainder and checking out the pictures and captions. (The book is actually quite an easy read so I will make a point to go back and read the whole thing at some point.)

What struck me immediately about the book was the tone of voice. It wasn’t a dry, technical overview of the universe and its history. It is in a linguistic style chosen for a lay audience, rather than died-in-the-wool astronomers. Although I’ve not seen an episode, I suspect the book has a similar appeal to the masses that Moore’s long-running The Sky at Night TV show probably aims for, which makes sense if they’re trying to reach the armchair astronomers of the world. Even Brian comments on the tone of the book on the Bang! website: “BANG! is written in ENGLISH, rather than the language of mathematics, designed to be clear to anyone not previously deeply immersed in Astronomy, but with an appetite for understanding.”

I scoured the book for references to Queen to see if Brian’s fan base would be catered to. There is none, except for a brief mention of Queen in Brian’s biography on the back cover (shown below). This was certainly not a gratuitous move since it is merely in keeping with acknowledging the credentials of each author. It just so happens that in addition to Brian’s professional affiliation with astronomy, he’s an occasional musician. There is one other Queen reference that I noticed . . . the preface photograph (shown above) was taken by Richard Gray. 

For the purposes of this book, I think that downplaying Brian’s musical profile was a good idea. It shows that his involvement with the project was not an honorary gesture or a marketing gimmick. He really does have street credibility in this area — he’s an expert in the specific field of astrophysics that his doctoral dissertation can attest to. 

There are specific references in the text to experiments, photographs, and such that Brian had a hand in. There is even a gem of a story that explains his childhood fascination with astronomy: “It was a book by Patrick Moore, The Earth, in the school library that introduced Brian to the amazing story of the trilobites, and inspired him to a life-long passion for astronomy” (May, Moore, & Lintott, 2007, p. 118). I wonder if Brian could have imagined that half a century later he’s be co-writing a book with that same author.

As a university instructor myself, I can appreciate the magnitude of what he’s accomplished with this book. He’s essentially co-written a textbook for astronomy buffs, albeit without any pedagogical tools. To put things in perspective, I’d be curious to see Justin Bieber or Rebecca Black write a textbook on comparative literature.

It’s not often that actors and musicians contribute specialized knowledge to the sciences in academia. Having a creative mind is usually counter-intuitive to thinking analytically. Switching from one creative endeavour to another is quite common — such as Costner with music or Mellencamp with painting — but when a personality is shown to be equally proficient with both left and right brain abilities, as Brian does, it’s a remarkable thing.

I’ll look forward to the sequel to BANG! called Cosmic Tourist which the three authors are currently working on.

May, B., P. Moore, & C. Lintott. (2007). Bang! The Complete History of the Universe. London: Carlton Books Limited.


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