four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
16-May-June-2005
By: 
Simon Singh
user_rating: 
0

The Origin of the Universe

A-BigBangAbout 14 billion years ago, a cosmic explosion gave birth to our universe. In this popular history of the Big Bang Theory, Singh introduces us to the movers and shakers of cosmology, from ancient Greek philosophers who believed in a changeless universe to modern-day "mavericks of the cosmos." Einstein’s theories of relativity contributed to our knowledge (though even he defended some passé ideas), but so did contributions from lesser-known scientists like Henrietta Leavitt, who in 1912 developed a way to measure galactic distances. Singh’s story extends far beyond Cepheid stars, quasars, and dark matter, however. At heart, Big Bang illustrates how scientific theories are tested, rejected, and accepted—with the Big Bang theory "the archetypal example of the scientific method in action."
Fourth Estate. 532 pages. $27.95. ISBN: 0007162200

Independent (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"Singh is a very gifted storyteller who never misses the chance to make his subject clearer or more entertaining. Abstract entities are infused with character, such as the luminiferous ether, a strange substance that was once thought to be all over the universe, conducting light." Scarlett Thomas

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Big Bang is, quite literally, cosmic. … More than the history of a single theory, it is an argument for the scientific method and for the illuminating power of human reason." William Grimes

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"Big Bang is a tour de force. … Perhaps because it touches such deep chords in the human psyche, the debate over our cosmic origins has been exceptionally fractious." James N. Gardner

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"An Emmy-nominated film director, Singh … has a documentarian’s sense of pace and drama. … Big Bang is not the first book to cover this ground, but it is undoubtedly one of the best." Jim Downing

Daily Telegraph (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"This is an epic tale brilliantly told, packed with courage and tragedy, heroes and martyrs, with one or two jokers in the pack. But Singh could have skipped the first 100-odd pages, a dutiful trudge through Greek precursors, Copernicus, and so on." Andy Martin

Economist 3.5 of 5 Stars
"His explanation of relativistic time dilation, which causes fast-moving clocks to appear to be running slowly when viewed by a stationary observer, is exemplary. … Mr. Singh repeatedly highlights the human failings of scientists as they fight over priority or struggle to convince their peers of their theories."

San Diego Union-Tribune 3 of 5 Stars
"… Big Bang is far from an easy read. … In telling the stories of Lemaitre, Hale, Brahe and others, Singh makes his larger point that science is a work in progress, a process driven by the strengths and weaknesses of real men and women." Scott Lafee

Critical Summary

Singh, a British physicist and author of Fermat’s Enigma and The Code Book, knows how to popularize science. Big Bang, written with a nod to Carl Sagan, tells the story of the origin of the universe. It’s not a new story, but one well told through philosophers and scientists who, over 2,000 years, discarded, accepted, or built on each other’s theories. In essence, Big Bang reveals how science works. Critics agree that Singh’s conversational style elucidates complex concepts without dumbing them down—in fact, even with his many pictures, diagrams, and summaries, readers would benefit from a scientific background. Yet only a few complained about Singh’s fast pace. If the first hundred pages dragged a bit, or if Singh’s mad scientists took on auras of TV personalities, never mind—you’ll be hard pressed to find a better book about your earthly origins.