Book Review: Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe

I’ll declare this right from the start, Simon Singh is one of my favorite science writers. His two previous books, Fermat’s Enigma and The Code Book are excellent. Especially the Code Book, which I was a little nervous to read, but walked away with a very firm understanding of codes and codebreaking through the centuries.

With Big Bang, Singh starts right at the beginning of cosmology, as the ancient Greeks showed a surprising series of leaps of logic about the Solar System. They correctly understood that the Earth is a sphere, and estimated its size. They calculated the distance to the Moon, and even took a stab at guessing the distance to the Sun. Unfortunately, they developed an incorrect view of an Earth-centred Universe, where the Sun, stars and the planets orbit the Earth. As errors developed in their theory, the Earth-centred astronomers just made their model more complex to compensate.

The book goes on to present discoveries in cosmology, one after the other, from the Copernicus Sun-centred view to Edwin Hubble’s discovery that many distant “nebulae” are actually other galaxies, like our Milky Way. Hubble then went on to discover that these distant galaxies are actually speeding away from us. It’s this discovery, that our Universe is expanding, which led to the theory we now call the Big Bang.

The Big Bang is such a profound theory, and it’s even more amazing because it’s embraced by nearly everyone working in cosmology today. Thank the evidence for this. Singh tracks down each piece of evidence supporting the Big Bang: the abundance of hydrogen in the Universe, the discovery that galaxies are speeding away from us, and the cosmic microwave background radiation. He introduces the reader to the cast of characters involved in each discovery, and then leads us through the observations and breakthroughs that formed this piece of evidence. We also meet the challengers and understand their differing, and very valid, viewpoints.

While reading Big Bang, you get the sense the Singh wanted to get across how well supported a theory the Big Bang is. This isn’t some half-baked theory about the Universe; the cosmologists who developed the Big Bang made some dramatic predictions which have turned out to be supported by observation. Some of the most dramatic are the most recent, with the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, which mapped variations in the microwave background radiation with such exquisite detail to help explain variations of matter in the Universe – why there are clumps of matter, like galaxies, planets, and people, and not just a rapidly spreading mist of equally-spaced hydrogen.

As I was reading Big Bang, through, I kept noticing how quickly I was moving through the book, and how slowly the story was progressing. Not that I was bored, but I was amazed at how long it took for discoveries to be presented. Once there was only a sliver remaining, I realized that I had slightly misjudged what the book was going to be about. Singh essentially wraps up with the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation by Penzias and Wilson – case closed, that’s the story of the Big Bang.

I follow astronomy and cosmology on a daily basis, and I know the story isn’t over. There are many intriguing discoveries being made all the time, such as dark energy, dark matter, and inflationary cosmology. Singh gives each of these subjects little more than a sentence or two in an epilogue, and this is unfortunate. I would have liked to see him tackle these fascinating subjects with the same care and skill that he handled the rest of the book. Perhaps a sequel Simon?

If you’re interested in astronomy, and want to get a nice overview of the Big Bang, I highly recommend this book by Simon Singh. It’s easy to read and understand, and gives a great overview of the theory, the theorists, and the evidence.

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Review by Fraser Cain