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Hardcover Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe Book

ISBN: 0007162200

ISBN13: 9780007162208

Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe

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Book Overview

This brief history of the beginning of the universe comes from the bestselling author of "Fermat's Enigma" and "The Code Book."

Customer Reviews

5 ratings


Simon Singh is an adept popular science writer. His first significant book was Fermat's Enigma which was an entertaining and informative chronicle of the solution to Fermat's Last Theorem. Then there was the Code Book which provided a nice history of cryptography. Now, in Big Bang, Singh deals with one of the biggest questions of them all: how did the universe begin? 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.

What a long, strange trip

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

Must have for your Bookshelf.

It seems there is a diverse discussion going on about Singh's latest book, here's my take on it. Everyone loves his masterpiece Fermat's Enigma, and for good reasons; but Big Bang is as a matter of fact a very similar book. It is equally brilliantly researched, with the same fantastic style of making complex concepts tangible by painting a picture of the personalities and the historic events around the discoveries. The only explanation that I can come up with why some people seem to not have enjoyed it that much is that most readers might have more general knowledge about astronomy or cosmology than about number theory. With me, it was the other way around; I knew most of the things in Fermat's Enigma, but I picked up some things reading the Big Bang. The other criticism to Big Bang is that it doesn't touch the latest developments. But again, only natural, Singh doesn't write about speculations, he writes about commonly accepted facts. So he has to be well behind the current research. Besides that: Let him have some ground to cover for his next book! My take on Big Bang is that it is a fantastic Encyclopedia (includes a great index) on how the theory about the beginning of the universe developed over the last several thousand years. At the same time, it reads like a mixture of a suspension novel and a set of biographies of some very colorful personalities. So if you expect dry scientific style, stay away from it. If you want to read a book that leads you just about as deep into the topics so that you don't have to read a single sentence twice in order to fully understand the concept, buy it now!

Everyone but cosmologists can benefit from reading this book

Almost everyone has heard of "The Big Bang" and its claim that the Universe began with an "explosion" from an infinitesimally small point some fifteen billion years ago. It is one of those terms that everyone needs to know something about in order to be connected to the larger culture. You don't have to agree with it or believe, but you need to know about it. This book is a terrific way to gain an overview of the theory, its history, and its connection to the history of astronomy since Ptolemy and the earth centered universe. "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.

Singh-ing Praise Once Again

With a PhD in particle physics and the easily digestible writing style, shared by his contemporaries Jon Krakauer and Nick Hornby, Simon Singh delivers once again. Having read and found "Fermat's Enigma" to be a thoroughly enjoyable and well researched book into the history of a seemingly simple equation (get that one too), I eagerly awaited the publication of this book. It makes for an excellent introduction into the world of cosmology. Singh relates the history of the subject from the early thinkers through to the current state of play - everyone from the "Cosmology Hall of Fame" is given a spot for their thoughts to be elucidated, how they affected the theories, how the modern folks are building on that knowledge, what questions remain unanswered, and what new questions are being promulgated. This is a worthy addition to the armchair and professional astronomer alike...worthy of a place alongside books by Hawking, Rees, Weinberg, Smoot and Gribben.
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