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Review: Andrew Pontzen’s The Universe in a Box

We asked guest author Elliott Baxby to take a look at Andrew Pontzen’s latest book, The Universe in a Box: A New Cosmic History.

Image of the cover of The Universe in a Box by Andrew Pontzen, which has the subtitle 'A New Cosmic History' and has a diagram of a cube containing a silver sphere

Ever since I became interested in mathematics, I have always wanted to learn more about science. I love mathematics, and I can easily spend most of the day reading about it and solving complex equations. The maths books I’m familiar with take the reader up a ladder – they can build foundations of knowledge in one chapter and apply that knowledge to the next. Science books that I have picked up before always seem to do the opposite – after reading the first page, I am always left confused and demotivated to carry on.

The Universe In a Box by Andrew Pontzen breaks this theme. The book takes us on a journey through how scientists’ knowledge of the cosmos has developed over the years, with a strong theme around how simulations have helped shape this progress. The chapters offer detailed explanations of key aspects, theories and phenomena of astrophysics.

I particularly liked the chapters on dark matter and dark energy, as these ideas are ultimately fascinating. Dark matter, which we haven’t been able to see, shows evidence of its functionality within the cosmos and the creation of galaxies; the book also considers the notion that dark energy will eventually tear our universe apart and lead it to its end.

Black holes are also well explained – they have always been something of interest to me, and learning more about them has only made me love them more. A massive source of energy that can suck everything in its path – the power they posses is truly scary. Even more so knowing that every large galaxy has a super massive black hole at its centre… including our own. The chapter goes on to explore how simulations can escape singularities by joining black holes up using wormholes. This scientific thinking and how these tricks can be applied to simulations, like using sub-grid rules, is inspired.

The final chapter is unnerving but interesting. Pontzen talks us through this idea of the ‘simulation hypothesis’. The hypothesis that we actually are living in a simulation created by higher beings or creatures. The argument for this is quite something, and to truly get a sense of the argument, one has to keep an open mind. However, such absurdities have been seen before – the idea of the known universe would not long ago have been considered as blasphemy. Still, I’m not sure I can get behind this idea of simulated reality. The idea of parallel universes was also explored in this book, and is another one I find interesting – perhaps these two ideas could go hand in hand.

Overall, this book was an engaging, informative and a thought provocative read. There were some chapters that I did not enjoy as much, including the chapter on Quantum Mechanics and Cosmic Origins. The chapter was really well explained and very interesting, but there were moments that I had to reread or search up meanings. This was also a theme through other parts of the book – this is not down to the lack of clarity in Pontzen’s explanations, but rather a limitation in my own scientific knowledge.

This book is a must-have for anyone who wants to learn more about the cosmos and its origins, and historical context about the advancement of science and scientific theories. The writing style is accessible and easy to digest. High-school students and above should be able to enjoy this book.

To conclude, this was a pleasant surprise compared to other science books I have read. I look forward to further publications by Andrew Pontzen.

2 Responses to “Review: Andrew Pontzen’s The Universe in a Box”

  1. Avatar Jim McLay

    Hi Elliott,
    He mentions simulation a million times but doesn’t give any examples, information as to what they are, or how they work, or where we might see one in operation. As a retired electronics design engineer, I found the book too well padded out.
    He doesn’t even speculate about where in space the “Big Bang” might have occurred, although I’d have thought the astronomers should have been able to figure that out by now from measurements of red/blue shift, with spaceborne telescopes like Hubble and the new one, plus the huge terrestial arrays that have been built.

    So, no, nothing you couldn’t find in Wikipedia, for €18 a big disappointment for me.

    • Elliott Baxby Elliott Baxby

      Hi Jim,
      I do agree he mentions simulations far too frequently however I do feel some examples were mentioned. Such examples include, ‘weather’ and ‘simulations of the early cosmos’. However, more would have been welcomed as to further explore there applications. I have also gained knowledge from this book about the importance on running simulations and the extensive process in creating the foundations for one.

      In regards to the big bang location, the knowledge I have is the big bang happened everywhere in space. It was the beginning of the universe; a small dense area of space that expanded outwards rapidly. However, I do agree the location of the original universe pre big bang is a missed opportunity of discussion.

      Overall I did enjoy this book. I do agree with some of your comments and while most of the information is available on Wikapedia, I much prefer reading a physical book! :D


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