Brian Cox and Robin Ince try to explain the entire universe while Tim Peake confines himself to life in orbit aboard the International Space Station.
Cox and Ince are the scientific double act who have brought us 16 series of The Infinite Monkey Cage on BBC Radio 4 and their book is a distillation of some of the best bits of the programme.
The first 30 or so pages try too hard to be funny and feel rather ponderous, as do 10 pages of foreword – by Eric Idle of all unlikely people – and introductory words by Monkey Cage producer Alexandra Feachem.
But once How To Build A Universe hits its stride, it becomes a joyous trip through our understanding of the universe or the theories when understanding still eludes us.
Robin Ince is one of the world’s fastest thinkers and talkers. Brian Cox is a great communicator who talks more slowly but still conveys his enormous wonder and appetite for scientific knowledge.
Between them and the words of many of their guests on the programme, ranging from comedians to scientists, they provide a whistle-stop tour of such topics as the Big Bang, the Higgs boson, life, death, parallel universes and, for some reason that I cannot quite grasp, poisonous frogs.
The book is over-designed with many pointless changes in font size, unnecessary full-page photographs and cartoons. It is trying too hard to look snazzy when it really doesn’t need to: the way Cox and Ince lightly dispense knowledge at a gallop is quite gripping enough.
Tim Peake’s Ask An Astronaut has a more modest aim but in its way is even more impressive.
When this British astronaut visited the International Space Station in 2016, he impressed everyone with his apparent modesty and nonchalance.
He tweeted, played the guitar, paid tribute to David Bowie and even ran a music quiz from space. But there was also a serious side to his mission which the book covers admirably.
This takes the form of 150 questions which (mostly) schoolchildren have asked Peake since he returned.
Covering his astronaut training, the launch, life on the ISS, spacewalks and the return to Earth, Peake’s honest and detailed answers combine to give a complete picture of an astronaut’s life.
For a man who has spent months in space, he comes over as remarkably down-to-earth. Peake deals with the questions candidly and with as much scientific detail as necessary, whether he is explaining the details of how one goes to the toilet in zero gravity, what happens if you are hit by space debris while performing a spacewalk or how you can drink a cup of tea in space.
After explaining his ingenious solution to the last of those problems, he says: “All things considered, it tasted pretty good, for a brew made with creamer and yesterday’s recycled urine!”
When asked, “What separated you from the other candidates who applied to be an astronaut?” Peake explains that he once asked the astronaut who interviewed him how he made his choice.
The reply was: “I just asked myself: would I like to go to space with this person?”
After reading this charming and informative book, one can see exactly why Tim Peake was chosen.