A History of the Universe in 100 Stars – Florian Freistetter

Translator – Gesche Ipsen

Class, today’s lockdown lesson is brought to you by the letter A.

I haven’t studied science since high school but the older I get, the more interesting I find it. I’ve been fascinated by astronomy since I was a kid and you know how much I love fun facts. Whenever I stumble across a book about stars I can’t help myself; I need to find out more.

It never fails to floor me whenever I read about how unfathomably ginormous the universe is.

The Milky Way has a “few hundred billion stars” and it’s only one of up to a quadrillion other galaxies in the universe. Each of those consist of “hundreds of billions of stars”.

61 Cygni is 11.4 light years away from Earth. Only twelve stars are closer than it.

I learned the names of the stars that make up the Southern Cross, the first constellation I was able to identify and a symbol that’s tattooed on so many Australians.

Four of the stars that make up the Southern Cross are pretty boring: Acrux, Becrux, Gacrux and Decrux. They were named because the constellation is called Crux and the Bayer system for naming stars is related to how bright they are; the brightest star is Alpha, the second brightest star Beta, third Gamma, fourth Delta, etc., so Alpha Crucis became Acrux. The fifth star, however, actually has a more appropriate name, Ginan, and I love this so much!

In the stories of the Wardaman people of northern Australia, a ginan is a traditional bag filled with stories and songs and myths about the creation of the world.

Apologies in advance if I’m ruining your childhood here, but did you know that shooting stars aren’t actually stars?

They are miniature lumps of rock only a few millimetres wide, and you can find them as space dust everywhere between the planets of our solar system. When Earth meets one of these grains of interplanetary dirt, we see a shooting star. The speck of dust hits the Earth’s atmosphere with a typical speed of between 30 and 70 kilometres per second. During its high-speed flight through the atmosphere, it rips electrons from the shells of the atoms of which the air consists; and when these now shell-less atoms recapture one of the liberated electrons and reattach it, they emit energy in the form of light, which we then perceive as a shooting star.

The whole thing takes place about a hundred kilometres above us and lasts only a few seconds.

Then there’s the “brightest and most massive” star. This honour goes to R136a1 from the Tarantula Nebula, which is almost 180,000 light years from Earth.

If R136a1 was where the Sun is, it would exceed the Sun’s brightness by as much as the Sun’s exceeds the Moon’s. R136a1 is a whole 265 times heavier than the Sun, and if it really was the centre of the solar system, the massive increase in gravitational force would shorten Earth’s orbit from 365 days to a mere 21.

This book reminded me that not only did The X-Files teach me Latin, it also taught me astronomy. So many years later, I came across the term syzygy in this book and not only did I know what it meant, I also remembered the storyline of the episode that introduced me to the word. Thank you, Chris Carter.

Even without a scientific background, I didn’t have any trouble understanding the author’s explanations. I would have loved for the book to have included photos of some of the stars; Google helped me fill this void.

I haven’t read a lot of astronomy books but I found Lisa Harvey-Smith’s The Secret Life of Stars an easier read. If I lost concentration during this book I’d have to reread at least a paragraph to figure out what I’d missed. There was a small amount of repetition, which I can put down to the fact that the author states in the foreword that you can read the chapters in any order.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Astronomer Florian Freistetter has chosen 100 stars that have almost nothing in common. Some are bright and famous, some shine so feebly you need a huge telescope. There are big stars, small stars, nearby stars and faraway stars. Some died a while ago, others have not even yet come into being. Collectively they tell the story of the whole world, according to Freistetter. There is Algol, for example, the Demon Star, whose strange behaviour has long caused people sleepless nights. And Gamma Draconis, from which we know that the earth rotates around its own axis. There is also the star sequence 61 Cygni, which revealed the size of the cosmos to us.

Then there are certain stars used by astronomers to search for extra-terrestrial life, to explore interstellar space travel, or to explain why the dinosaurs became extinct.

In 100 short, fascinating and entertaining chapters, Freistetter not only reveals the past and future of the cosmos, but also the story of the people who have tried to understand the world in which we live. 

Does It Fart?: The Definitive Field Guide to Animal Flatulence – Nick Caruso & Dani Rabaiotti

Illustrations – Ethan Kocak

You know those facts that you didn’t know you needed to know until you read a blurb and realise that you urgently need to know this vital information? Well, that sums up how I felt when I discovered Does It Fart? on NetGalley. I read the blurb, knew immediately that I needed this book in my life, hit the Request button and waited. Then my email notification arrived letting me know I was denied access to this title. My heart sank and I experienced one of my biggest NetGalley disappointments to date.

Yet I still desperately needed to read it ASAP so I waited as patiently as possible for the release date. Finally it arrived and I thought about ordering it through my local library but quickly determined that I needed it now, so downloaded it to my Kindle and started reading straight away.

I was anticipating a book with some facts but more laughs. In the introduction I read that “Not all farts are created equal” and that confirmed to me that this was definitely the book for me, so I eagerly read on. Then I found I was disappointed because my expectations didn’t match the reality of this book.

There are some interesting facts and you do find out the answers regarding whether an animal farts, doesn’t fart or maybe farts, but I found it was written in such a clinical way that the only laughs I got out of the book came from the illustrations.

Had I simply expected information telling me that this animal farts because it eats a plant based diet and has a certain type of stomach and digestive system, or this animal farts because it eats a meat based diet and has certain type of stomach and digestive system, I would have been satisfied. There was other information about each animal including details of scent glands and digestive enzymes, how many species of that animal exist and where they’re found along with the animal’s scientific name, but I didn’t need to laugh at all while I read.

I did like learning smelly facts including an animal that uses their farts to kill prey, another that uses farts to communicate and one that will die if they don’t fart, but I found these facts interesting rather than funny. Even the entry about unicorns mostly compared them to horses, cows and rhinos, making the assumption that because each of these animals fart then a unicorn would be likely to as well.

I know I’m in the minority here as plenty of reviewers are talking about how hilarious this book is but the illustrations stole the show for me. They were fantastic and looked like they belonged in a cartoon or a funny graphic novel. The expressions on the animals’ faces were priceless, with plenty of big googly eyes and crosses replacing eyes for those in the flatulence firing line. All of the animals had so much character I could have written a story featuring each of them based on their expressions and the way they were posed alone. I definitely need to see more of Ethan Kocak’s artwork.

I am glad I read this book as it satisfied my curiosity and I now know the answers about whether the animals discussed fart or not. However I wish I’d waited to borrow it from the library rather than spending money that I would have preferred, in hindsight, to spend on several other books I know I would have enjoyed more and wanted to reread.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Dogs do it. Millipedes do it. Dinosaurs did it. You do it. I do it. Octopuses don’t (and nor do octopi). Spiders might do it: more research is needed. Birds don’t do it, but they could if they wanted to. Herrings do it to communicate with each other. 

In 2017 zoologist Dani Rabaiotti’s teenage brother asked her a most teenaged question: Do snakes fart? Stumped, Rabaiotti turned to Twitter. The internet did not disappoint. Her innocent question spawned the hashtag #doesitfart and it spread like a noxious gas. Dozens of noted experts began weighing in on which animals do and don’t fart, and if they do, how much, how often, what it’s made of, what it smells like, and why. 

Clearly, the public demands more information on animal farts. Does it Fart? fills that void: a fully authoritative, fully illustrated guide to animal flatulence, covering the habits of 80 animals in more detail than you ever knew you needed. 

What do hyena farts smell especially bad? What is a fossa, and does it fart? Why do clams vomit but not fart? And what is a fart, really? Pairing hilarious illustrations with surprisingly detailed scientific explanations, Does it Fart? will allow you to shift the blame onto all kinds of unlikely animals for years to come.