“The Universe in Your Hand” – Christophe Galfard (3/5 ★)

I’ll start off with the mention that this is an amazing book & that I’d suggest each & everyone to read it! (don’t mind the 3 stars!!) It opens up your understanding of our planet, our universe & simply how bizarre our existence is, living on a ball of matter floating through space. I’ll also instantly add on that I didn’t find it to be an easy read (I would’ve loved to give it 4 or 5 stars because it absolutely deserves it, but I just struggled too much through it). The descriptions are extremely vivid & visual, which helps you easily imagine most of the topics explained, as an example:

“To put things into perspective, if the Sun were the volume of a large watermelon, the tiny Earth would lie some 43 metres away – and you’d need a magnifying glass to look at it.” (p. 17)

To have a comparison, it’s MUCH more challenging than “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari, mostly because of the complex & abstract concepts explained. Already “Sapiens” was densely packed with information, where you intentionally wanted to slow down your reading to grasp & remember as much of it as possible, “The Universe in your Hand” brings it to a whole other level. Even though I haven’t read it myself yet, it seems a bit more feasible than the book “Thinking, Fast & Slow” by Daniel Kahneman.

It took me 2 attempts to finally finish “The Universe in Your Hand”. I first started reading it back in Sept ’19, got through around 25% & then didn’t have the perseverance to continue anymore. I picked it up again in Jan ’20 & forced myself to finish it. The book is divided into 7 parts and whereas the first four of them I got through all right (not having too much difficulty imagining the universe, the stars, the matter out there), the author lost me by the time he got to quantum physics in the fourth part. From then on the reading became a struggle, not having any background in science, it was difficult for me to retain information & my understanding got blurry. This is where the first star reduction comes from. The author promised “to not leave anyone behind” in the very beginning… Well, in my opinion, he didn’t quite succeed… To give you a taste of what some passages in that part of the book sound like when my brain simply went “What the hell are you trying to feed me??!! I’m not ready for this!!”:

“An electron-positron pair spontaneously appears in front of you and the pair annihilates into a photon which spontaneously turns into another pair, a quark-antiquark pair, and now one of the antiquarks emits a gluon, which in turn…” (p. 302)

“Quantum field theories assert that as soon as there are fields around, these fields can create small packets of energy, or small packets of matter, which are called quanta. The basic quanta of the electromagnetic field are the least energetic states of its elementary particles, the photons and the electrons. Similarly, the basic quanta of the strong nuclear force field give the quarks and the gluons, whereas the basic quanta of the gravitational field, considered as a hypothetical quantum field, are what we earlier called the gravitons.” (p. 305)

What I enjoyed most was the simple information, that I simply haven’t come across before. Facts like:
“That the Sun will blow up in about 5 billion years from now” (p. 22);
– That “Andromeda [our neighbour galaxy] and the Milky Way are falling upon each other, at the astonishing rate of 100km per second, leaving just 4 billion years before they collide” (p. 44);
– That “the universe in its entirety was smaller in the past” (p. 92) & “that the actual distance between faraway galaxies and us is growing all the time. It means that space stretches, and therefore grows, on its own, in between the galaxies. It means that our universe changes with time” (p.85).

Some topics rang a faint bell from back in the days of high school, making me remember situations when teachers were hopelessly trying to force & drill the knowledge into us. Luckily Mr. Galfard is much more talented as a story-teller & manages to captivate your attention in a much more compelling way than during the physics lessons at school. You can enjoy the book without the intimidating thought in the back of your head of having to absorb absolutely everything & needing to score high on a test checking your knowledge afterwards. Instead, it gives you a little push into the universe that you might have always been curious about but never came across a book where the topic would be presented in an accessible way.

So to sum it up, did I understand all of it? Uhmm, well… Not necessarily, but then finally that isn’t the main point of the book. To me the book felt rather like an approachable invitation to dare take the step into the worlds of physics, quantum physics & so on, by presenting it within a simplified narrative. This was what I enjoyed the most about the book, its style, its humour & the way this knowledge was presented to the reader – with an engaging first person narrative, where you become the main character by going on different journeys with your imagination.

“As you’ve probably noticed while reading this book, your mind can take you to places forbidden to your body, and to places where no one has ever been before.” (p. 258)

★★★☆☆ (3/5)

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