How It Ends book review

The best popularisers of frontier science pull off a precarious balancing act

Book review, Time In
Chris Impey

WW Norton

The best popularisers of frontier science pull off a precarious balancing act, weighing fidelity to hardcore Byzantine mathematics against the layperson’s thirst for simple explanations. With this book, University of Arizona astronomer Chris Impey topples with a flourish into lecture-hall opaqueness.

It’s a shame, because his subject is compelling and commercially appealing: death. Kicking off with something we can all relate to, the death of the organism, Impey ups the teleological stakes in each chapter, expanding his autopsy room to include species extinction and biosphere sterilisation, then going cosmic with solar-system burnout, galactic coagulation and, finally, the distant demise of our overstretched universe.

It’s a huge amount to cram in, and this is Impey’s problem. Led by a galloping enthusiasm to impart everything he knows (and he knows a lot), he leaves a trail of arcane theories undigested and jargon grenades undefused – after which all the hackneyed Shakespearean analogies and Bryson-esque chummy asides in the world can’t haul the reader back.

With no room to spare for lucidity or narrative, How It Ends winds up as little more than a list of facts. Good facts, it has to be said: how at least one species of jellyfish is technically immortal, for instance. But lucidity and narrative tend to be important to a non-pub-quiz-compiling audience, and certainly to a reader with a vested interest in staying alive until at least the end of the book – and in some of these chapters that’s by no means guaranteed.

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