My main impression is that this book belongs on the toilet. Not in that "flush it" kinda way, but the way this book is laid out lends itself to reading in small chunks. It's broken into 9 chapters + an epilogue. At 307 pages, that averages out to just over 30 pages per chapter. Not terribly long, but to make it even more chunk-worthy (and I don't mean that in the "blowing chunks" kinda way), each chapter is broken into sub sections that are generally only 1-3 pages.
That in and of itself doesn't mean that it must be read in small sitting, but there's another feature of this book that I think lends itself to it: It's somewhat redundant. Many topics that appear in multiple chapters are reexplained. Having an astronomy background, the first time was enough. I didn't need the second or third time. Yawn. I can see how this would make the book more approachable to someone without any background, but at the same time, why not just say "as discussed on page XX"? But perhaps that's just the internet generation in me, where you don't repeat information, you just hyperlink to it.
Indeed, certain topics pop up repeatedly with explanations being repeated almost verbatim, even using the same analogies. For example, let's look at 2 instances where "degeneracy" pops up:
"...degeneracy, which is similar to electromagnetic repulsion: if you try to squeeze too many of the same kinds of particles together (regardless of charge), they resist it."Another example is trying to figure out distribution of objects around the observer. An example is given on page 111 of being in a field of insects; If you're in the center, you'll see roughly the same number in all directions, but if you're off to one edge, looking towards that edge, you'll see less and looking towards the far edge, you'll see more. This exact same notion appears on page 326 taking a full paragraph to reintroduce. It even includes a footnote saying "Yes, this is the same analogy used for GRBs in chapter 4. Glad you noticed! the principle is the same, so I recycled it."
"[Degeneracy] is similar to electrostatic repulsion - the idea that like charges repel - but instead it's a property of certain subatomic particles where they resist being squeezed too tightly together. Degeneracy will occur if you try to pack too many electrons together, but it also affects neutral particles like neutrons."
So again, I think this works fine if it's been a few days between those pages, but seeing them back to back within a few hours just insults ones intelligence. There's more examples of this, especially in the first few chapters, but past chapter 4, it tends to get a bit better.
But enough about these trivial stylistic issues. What of the content?
When the book was finished, I felt oddly dissatisfied. Not because it's not well written. Not because the science isn't good. But because the science is good.
The book stars off with a dire proclimation:
The universe is trying to kill you.Holy magikarp! A quick look at the titles of the chapters confirms it: Asteroids, supernovae, black holes, and Gamma Ray Bursts! Oh my!
It's nothing personal. It's trying to kill me too. It's trying to kill everybody.
But because Phil is doing the good science, he puts it all in perspective; There's (almost) nothing to worry about! The only (possibly) imminent threat is that of an asteroid collision. And even then, he pegs the odds of that happening in the average lifetime at 1:700,000! The rest are so ridiculously improbable or so far in the future and unavoidable that it's not even worth making a bad sci-fi movie over.
So the science is good. But that doesn't mean that Phil didn't hit one of my major nitpicks: In chapter 9 - The end of everything, he has the shortest sub-section in the entire book with the heading: "A Very Brief History of the Universe". I'll quote the section in full:
In the beginning, there was nothing.*Twitch*
Then there was everything.
The whole "nothing" bit irks me. Especially since in the following sections, Phil goes on to explain how we can't really describe the universe before the Planck era. We can't say there was "nothing". There was likely "something", we just can't quite describe it. I expect this section was intended at humor, but what a misconception to feed.
That and the Big Bang was an "explosion".
Why Phil!? Why?!
Of course, to be fair, in the course of the book, Phil lets us know about one of his pet peeves: Calling the Sun an "average" star. I'm sorry (although I'm pretty sure I qualified my terms well enough there that Phil shouldn't gripe too much).
Another note: I picked up the paperback version of the book. I like the cover a lot better. And it was cheaper. Cheaper is good.
One thing I did notice is that the pictures were somewhat low contrast. Not to the point you couldn't get the important details, but the full majesty of them was certainly lost. Of course, full color glossy prints barely do justice to entire galaxies when they're squished down to only a few inches on any side, so I hope anyone reading this that picks up the book will take the time to google the images and really appreciate them.