Big Bang Hardcover – Oct 4 2004
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A baffling array of science books claim to reveal how the mysteries of the universe have been discovered, but Simon Singh's Big Bang actually delivers on that promise. General readers will find it to be among the very best books dealing with cosmology, because Singh follows the same plan he used in his brilliant Code Book: he puts people--not equations--first in the story. By linking the progression of the Big Bang theory with the scientists who built it up bit by bit, Singh also uncovers an important truth about how such ideas grow.
Death is an essential element in the progress of science, since it takes care of conservative scientists of a previous generation reluctant to let go of an old, fallacious theory and embrace a new and accurate one.As harsh as this statement seems, even Einstein defended an outmoded idea about the universe when an unknown interloper published equations challenging the great man. Einstein didn't have to die for cosmology to move forward (he reluctantly apologized for being wrong), but stories like this one show how difficult it can sometimes be for new theories to take root. Fred Hoyle, who coined the term "big bang" as a way to ridicule the idea of a universe expanding from some tiny origin point, strongly believed that the cosmos was in a steady state. But Singh shows how Hoyle's research, meant to prove the contrary, added evidence to the expansion model. Big Bang is also a history of astronomical observation, describing the development of new telescopes that were crucial to the development of cosmology. Handwritten summary notes at the end of each long chapter add a charming, classroom feel to this revealing and very readable book. --Therese Littleton
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. It was cosmologist Fred Hoyle who coined the term "big bang" to describe the notion that the universe exploded out of nothing to kick-start space and time. Ironically, Hoyle himself espoused the steady state theory, positing that the universe is eternal and never really changes. Former BBC producer and science writer Singh (Fermat's Enigma) recounts in his inimitable down-to-earth style how the big bang theory triumphed. Readers will find here one of the best explanations available of how Cepheid stars are used to estimate the distance of other galaxies. Singh highlights some of the lesser-known figures in the development of the big bang theory, like Henrietta Leavitt, a volunteer "computer" at the Harvard College Observatory who in 1912 discovered how Cepheid stars can be used to measure galactic distances. Singh shows how the creation of the heavier elements was a major stumbling block to widespread adoption of the big bang until Hoyle (once again boosting the theory that he so fervently opposed) proved that they were created in stars' nuclear furnaces and strewn throughout the universe via supernova explosions. Readers who don't need a review of the early development of cosmology may wish that Singh had adopted a somewhat less leisurely pace. But his introductory chapters hold a lot of worthwhile material, clearly presented for the science buff and lay reader. There's no better account of the big bang theory than this. B&w photos and illus.
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Actually, for astronomy junkies - those who've read books like Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe or Hawkings's Brief History of Time - Big Bang is probably a little tame and won't offer much new insight. Singh's audience is the general reader, one who may understand what the Big Bang is but not how the concept was arrived at.
Singh starts with the ancient Greeks and the origins of science. Soon enough, we read of Copernicus and his revolutionary idea that the Earth was not the center of the universe. Through Galileo, Kepler, Newton and others, the design of the universe kept changing, sometimes radically (geocentric to heliocentric) and sometimes more subtly (circular orbits to elliptical ones). Then things began to move beyond the solar system to look at the Milky Way: did it contain all the stars in the universe or were there other galaxies as well? The determination that there were many galaxies and that they seemed to mostly receding from each other led to a somewhat startling idea: if the galaxies are moving away from each other, they must have been closer in the past and at some point, they were all in one place.
The Big Bang theory would have its fair share of opposition, most notably from Fred Hoyle; ironically, it was Hoyle who wound up coming up with the term "Big Bang." The icing on the theoretical cake, however, would come with the discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background, an actual remnant from the Big Bang.
While superficially a book about the Big Bang, what Singh actually is writing about is how scientific thought develops, how new ideas arise from old. The Big Bang, like evolution, quantum theory or many other concepts, was not just a wild idea unsupported by facts; instead, it is the end result of a series of logical conclusions. In an era when scientific thought is often questioned (look at topics like global warming or evolution), Big Bang shows that - while not perfect - science is often the most reasonable source for answers about the fundamental nature of both the universe and ourselves.
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]
"The Big Bang" is a terrific read because Simon Singh is an exceptionally talented writer who is able to open even arcane subjects for the general reader. He has a special gift for knowing just how much a subject needs to be simplified while leaving it just challenging enough to make the reader think a bit and puzzle things out in order to appreciate the intellectual change the new insight represents. Mr. Singh also humanizes the story by keeping the men and women who made these discoveries front and center.
It is the human rivalries, their mistakes, and their genius that attracts us and keeps us turning the pages to find out what happens next. And what a cast this book has. Just some of the big names are Ptolemy, Copernicus, Galileo, Brahe, Kepler, Newton, Hubble, Hoyle, and Einstein. There are dozens of important names I am not listing here simply because they aren't as well known as they deserve to be.
I love the story of how Eratosthenes made a pretty good calculation of the circumference of the earth using a stick, a well, some careful measurements, and trigonometry. Once that distance is known, figuring out the size and distance of the moon and the Sun are not that hard. Singh takes on a journey of expanding horizons, difficult intellectual puzzles, ever better observations, and hypotheses that get confirmed or drop away.
Fred Hoyle and his Steady State model is presented as a hero and a genius in this story. You can read the book to learn more about this model and its modifications. However, you should know that it was Hoyle who solved the problem of how the heavier elements are synthesized in stars. It involved an excited state of carbon that had more mass than regular carbon 12. Singh feels that Hoyle was shamefully treated in his later years and from what we read here it is easy to agree.
Singh informs us that proponents for a quasi-steady state model still exist. However, after COBE and WMAP have confirmed the variation in the background radiation that would indicate an uneven state in the early universe that allowed for the formation of galaxies and other structures, Singh says the current weight of evidence is strongly in favor of "The Big Bang".
This really is a fine book for the general reader. Unless you are already fully conversant in cosmology, this book can add to your knowledge and is a very enjoyable read.
I don't say this often, but I believe everyone should read this book.
As a lay-person's introduction to the history of astronomy and cosmology, the book is fine, although a bit basic for my taste. For example, I've never studied physics or astronomy, but generally already knew much of the information on the Greeks, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Tycho Brahe, Einstein, etc. Those tired descriptions of special and general relativity, and the expanding universe as a balloon are wheeled out once again.
I was disappointed in the book because I enjoyed Fermat's Enigma and The Code Book so much. I had high expectations for this book to be more technical. For example, I felt that glowing testimonials on the process and value of the scientific method detracted from the focus and rigor of the book. As an example, we have an off-topic tangent on "paradigm shift" within the process of scientific progress. Perhaps Singh has dumbed-down the material too much. Quite patronizing were the chapter-ending "notebook" sketches which summarized points from each respective chapter. These only served to confirm that the book seemed targeted at a high-school level audience. For readers with little science background, the book should be accessible.
The formal chapters of this 2004 book abruptly end with the announcement of the COBE result in 1992; advances of the next 12 years are relegated to an Epilogue. Formalizing my disappointment was Figure 103, a reproduction of a 1992 newspaper article which provided me with perhaps more details of the sort I was hoping the book itself would contain. For example, the book has little or no mention of matter versus anti-matter, quarks, W+ W- Z particles, which are all shown in the clipping.
A glaring flaw is the absence of the mention of inflation, Big Crunch, type Ia supernovae, dark energy, and dark matter until the last few pages of this epilogue. Quite a trick for a 500 page book on its purported subject. Many of these topics have been known or debated for decades. For example, the recent WMAP refinement in the age of the universe is only mentioned in the caption to an image! This caption (Figure 104) raises several points which leave the reader wanting more details. Why was so much text spent on COBE when its results were superseded by WMAP, which gets only passing mention? One could be left with the idea that not much is going on in this field since 1992.
The book spends a lot of time building what I considered a straw-man argument about the steady-state universe versus the Big Bang. No serious scientist today doubts the latter, and I found Singh's approach tedious and inexplicably dated; a sort of preaching to the choir. As I waded through the very interesting but here belabored scientific advances of the 20th century, my overwhelming sense was, "get on with it."
As further evidence of the target audience level for this book, note that after the Epilogue, there is a short section, "What is Science" which declares, "This book is a history of the Big Bang Model, but at the same time it attempts to provide an insight into what science is and how it works." I wished I had read the first part of this statement before starting the book so I wouldn't have been expecting a play-by-play account of the Big Bang event, which is not satisfactorily provided here.
I quote from the Epilogue regarding current research in cosmology: "The rest of this epilogue [about 16 pages] is a brief dip into some of those still to be resolved issues and details. A few paragraphs cannot hope to convey the subtlety, depth and true significance of any of these problems." True, perhaps, but I thought that's what the whole book was for.