Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Book Review: Big Bang: the Origin of the Universe (2004)

Junior loves the shiny cover of this book

Simon Singh, author of the excellent Fermat's Last Theorem, once again provides an accessible account of monumental discoveries in science. This time, he focuses on the field of astronomy, crafting an engaging history of the Big Bang theory, which posits that “everything in the universe exploded into being out of a single point in space” (from Singh's website). The journey takes many centuries and its roads are traveled by countless men and women, and Singh focuses on the pivotal moments and leading personalities to build his story.

A main theme of the book is the scientific method, and Singh predictably discusses Copernicus and Galileo, who used instruments to observe and analyze the heavens. Then he looks into Tycho Brahe and Kepler in the 16th and 17th centuries, to illustrate how a mathematically correct model gained acceptance for the sun-centered model of the universe. He recounts Einstein's retraction of the cosmic constant, a number "fudged" by the great physicist to fit his general theory of relativity within the dogmatic framework of an eternal universe -- not a good science move, ehrmagerd. In latter chapters, Singh recounts the conflict between advocates of the Big Bang model and the proponents of the Steady State model, using the Big Bang’s victory to underline that the theory with the stronger evidence wins, eventually.

Another theme is chance, which is most apparent in the sections where Singh describes the rise of radio astronomy, as well as the discovery of cosmic background radiation in the 1960s, decades after it was first predicted. Logical leaps are also featured, such as Henrietta Leavitt’s realization that Cepheid stars can be used as galactic yardsticks. There was also a man who barged into someone else’s lab and was all, “You guys, I need to find a thing with a specific wavelength that I calculated in my head, help me out?”

Anyway, Singh’s narrative has it all: scientific rebellion, paradigm shifts, professional and personal animosities, and of course, math – I’m going to be honest, it’s the sexiest science book I’ve read so far. His mention of Calvin and Hobbes alone should be enough for readers interested in science, philosophy, and cosmic history.

My only beef with the book are the summary tables and the chapter end notes, which are possibly for students? I skipped them because the tables oversimplified how theories prove themselves valid, and the end notes were written in a notebook-y font, with drawings and diagrams presumably for readers with reading comprehension problems. I think they undermine the rich and complex content that preceded them.

(removes Pretentious Glasses)

TL;DR: Simon Singh Says: Science is Sexy!

 This post brought to you by cassava cake!