Who first looked up at the night sky wondering about those specks of light? Whoever and wherever that was, the quest for an answer has endured. Simon Singh traces the results of that search in very human terms. From early creation myths through the orbiting of machines that view the universe in selected frequencies, he explains how our knowledge of the cosmos has built and changed over four long centuries. Using an effective conversational style, he demonstrates how the slow accumulation of knowledge built our picture of the universe. With clarity came distance in our growing perception of the age and scope of the cosmos. After nearly fifteen billion years, the universe has had much time to expand. Whether that will long continue is one of the points of this excellent story.
Arranging his topics carefully, Singh ties concepts to their investigators. Early ideas were based on "common sense" and accepted authorities. Naked eye observation limited our ability to "see" the universe until the telescope was developed. "Decentralising" is an ongoing theme in this book as we learn how Western Europe came to understand the Earth was not the centre of things. Galileo's telescopic observations shifted that centre to the sun. When telescopes improved even the sun's location moved to the edge of the Milky Way. Singh demonstrates how each step was proposed, considered and contested, then accepted with additional data. With hindsight, the conclusions all appear obvious. At the time of each new concept's proposal, "established" views held sway until overwhelming evidence displaced them.
No proposal was so hotly disputed as the notion that the cosmos began as a tiny region which rapidly expanded - the Big Bang. Although first proposed in different terms by a Belgian priest, Georges Lemaitre, the idea of explosive beginnings of the universe were generally dismissed. The supporting evidence was lacking and other considerations impaired its acceptance. Not the least of these was the religious connotations arising from the idea of a "creation point". In fact, the term "Big Bang" was a derisive term applied to the concept by one of its greatest critics, Fred Hoyle. Hoyle, with a shifting squad of supporters, proposed a "Steady State" universe in which matter was continuously being created and annihilated. Singh uses a handy set of comparison charts to show how evidence and the issues are balanced in the two theories. Bound to both theses was the question of the universe's age.
In the years following World War II, however, technology generated by that conflict provided researchers with a fresh, if previously used, tool kit. Radio telescopy, a true product of "war surplus" equipment, led to new discoveries. Of the many findings, the one most damaging to Hoyle's Steady State universe came from two scientists trying to reduce static in transcontinental telephone calls. Singh's description of Penzias and Wilson combatting the homing, nesting and excretory habits of a pair of pigeons is typical of his conversational style. It's also a paean to the dedicated researchers who persevered to complete their task. Coupled with radio telescopy was the improvement in spectroscopy - the chemistry of stars. Contributing new information on stellar age had the bizarre impact of clarifying and obscuring the duration of the universe's existence.
Understanding the history of our learning the structure of the universe is one thing - grasping the physics and chemistry is quite another. Singh's great talent is being able to convey both with equal facility and clarity. He knows how to summarize without losing meaning. The "sketches" concluding each chapter are visual summaries that might have been his composing notes. The bibliography is useful, but with the number of books on the topics, it reflects necessarily limited choices. There are countless books on the history and physics of cosmology. Is this one preferable to most? Is it more important than the others? The answer to both questions is a vehement, if qualified, "Yes!". To someone new to the topic, Singh has provided an informative welcome. Does he justify his subtitle? That remains questionable, but it's clear he's correct in asserting "you need to know about it". [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]