Now imagine a white hole – a black hole’s time-reversed twin…

There are many ways to measure the course of human history and each will give an insight into one or more of the various qualities that have made us the most successful great ape. Every major advance, whether in war or art or literature, requires imagination, that most amazing of human capacities, and the ability to ask ‘What if?’ – to take the world from a different perspective. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the history of science. While there is an inherent provincialism in revolutions in art and literature, progress in science is universal, and moves, like Dante’s Hell, in concentric circles of ever deeper understanding. It is

Who laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round?

In 2020, an American pilot and daredevil named ‘Mad Mike’ Hughes launched himself in a homemade steam-powered rocket, hoping to achieve enough altitude to prove to himself that the Earth was flat. Unfortunately, the rocket crashed and Mad Mike was no more. ‘I’m not going to take anyone else’s word for it, or Nasa, or especially Elon Musk with SpaceX,’ he had once explained in an interview. ‘I’m going to build my own rocket right here and I’m going to see it with my own eyes what shape this world we live on is.’ In this way he became a martyr to the modern conspiracy theorist’s mantra: ‘Do your own

Heavenly beauty: Doppelmayr’s Atlas Coelestis

It seems something of a disservice to a work of this seriousness to say how beautiful it is, but that is what will first strike the reader. Open this book and if you can prise yourself away from its wonderful marbled end papers, with their swirls and drifts of deepest blue, brilliant flashes of rusty orange, rivulets of ochre, inky spheres and floating masses of fiery red, you will find yourself taken back to the Enlightenment world of Johann Gabriel Doppelmayr’s Celestial Atlas and an age in which Europe’s polymaths were as interested in the discoveries of science as they were in the literary and artistic culture of the day.

An orange or an egg? Determining the shape of the world

Thirty-two years ago the young Nicholas Crane, who would go on to become one of England’s most esteemed television geographers, set out to woo a young woman by spiriting her off to the unfailingly romantic landscape of Chimborazo and Cotopaxi. The couple spent their high-altitude idyll walking the hills in hobnail boots, making river passage in dugout canoes and boarding a Quito-bound steam train through the Andes, run by the estimable Empresa de Ferrocarriles Ecuatorianos. Their journey had its moments: at one stage both parties were to be found at 13,000 feet, crusted with ice and huddled overnight from the gales inside a pair of plastic rubbish bags; they then

Christiaan Huygens – hero of time and space

This book, soaked like the Dutch Republic itself ‘in ink and paint’, is enchanting to the point of escapism. The author calls it ‘an interior journey into a world of luxury and leisure’. It is more than that. What he writes of Christiaan Huygens’s milieu is true also of his book: ‘Like a Dutch interior painting, it turns out to contain everything.’ Hugh Aldersey-Williams says that Huygens was the first modern scientist. This is a delicate argument to make: the word ‘scientist’ didn’t enter the English language before 1834. And he’s right to be sparing with such rhetoric, since a little of it goes a very long way. What inadvertent

Gazing heavenwards: the medieval monks who mapped the planetary motions

We can probably blame George and Ira Gershwin. It was that brilliant duo who, in 1937, penned the memorable lyric ‘They all laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round’. The song has been recorded by at least 15 artists over the years, from Fred Astaire to Lady Gaga, and is embedded in the consciousness of the West. But its headline message — medieval people are stupid — is total nonsense. No one, as Professor Seb Falk points out in this brilliant study of medieval astronomy and learning, ever disbelieved the world was round, and medieval people were far cleverer than they get credit for. Half the