Book Review: Big Bang

This was a book that, I admit, wasn’t on my reading list, but when I came across a copy I began reading it out of interest. It is a credit to the author that I stayed with it, and chose to throw it into the review lineup.

Big Bang by Simon Singh is named in a very straightforward way, since it lays out the entire history of the currently-preferred theory of the origin of the universe, colloquially called the “Big Bang” by one of its early detractors. But Singh doesn’t just stick to the theory itself; he builds virtually the entire history of cosmology, taking care to elaborate on the various details that form the foundations. I was fairly familiar with the general principles and most of the science before I started reading, which meant that this was an already-solved mystery for me, and yet, I found the development of these details quite interesting – not to mention that Singh introduced several new aspects to me as well. From my position as an enthusiast about astronomy, cosmology, and science in general, I found little that he glossed over or failed to explain.

It’s easy to have a book of this kind become something of a list, merely pointing out the key steps, and the potential for a dry, clinical synopsis is pretty high – see Wikipedia, for example. Instead, what is presented is the process itself and those who participated, the trials and successes they experienced, and even the personalities they displayed. While Singh doesn’t concentrate on any particular person within, it is easy for the reader to get a taste of what each person was like, and how this affected the discoveries they made.

That’s the sneaky part about this book. There’s an underlying message about the humanity of even scientists, where emotions and personal preferences colored the progress of the theory throughout. Those that view scientists as some kind of elitist snobs might relish this aspect, since it reminds us that we’re all human and prone to errors and bias, but scientists don’t hold some particular attitude or caste simply by being scientists, any more than truck drivers do. There’s a deeper message than that, because within the sometimes-astounding mental prowess sits the subconscious influences of emotion, ego, and even complacency. To see how it affected our scientific progress is a great reminder to remain as open-minded as possible, and to accept mistakes rather than try to deny them. The discoveries that we make are greater than the human concerns that preoccupy us (and even blind us) all too often.

Another subtle aspect that I caught was how much the various wars influenced our progress. Countless scientists abandoned promising research to perform some function during wartime; some of them died doing so. These abrupt stops and long interruptions clearly had an affect on our pursuit of knowledge, only on rare occasions positively. It is easy to accept the ideology of serving one’s country, but in most cases, scientists do so at the expense of serving mankind instead. And there’s even the bonus of finding how many significant contributions to the whole theory were made by those with little or no training in the fields, something that we non-scientists can appreciate, at least.

Singh devotes the last chapter to the issues yet to be resolved with the theory, and provides a bit of perspective on the way. It is easy to read the book and consider the perplexity of the people at the time, before stellar spectra or nuclear fusion were discovered, but we’re in the same position now, with the questions of dark matter, the inflation period, and dark energy. Opponents of science like to consider these as damaging to the theory, yet they are merely gaps awaiting further understanding, which is how science progresses. Such gaps do not cause the numerous supporting factors that we now have to vanish, and any alternate explanation has to take these same factors into account. The main reason that the Big Bang is favored over the Quasi-Steady State for cosmological theories is that it explains much more, and even predicted a major discovery, two decades before we had the ability to make it (the Cosmic Microwave Background.)

The reader also meets another aspect of scientific theory that assures us of accuracy, that of cross-disciplinary support. Astronomy used to consist of merely observation and careful mathematics, but we garnered so much more information when we found that it tied in with the physics of light, nuclear interactions, radio waves, chemistry, and so on. In fact, the basic laws of physics, of merely existing, got simpler as we found that everything we see obeys the same sets of behaviors. The periodic table of elements, originally listing all known matter in the order of their atomic weights, was eventually found to also list them largely in order of their abundance in the universe, as well as the number of protons in the nucleus. This was evidence of how stars form nearly all elements from the fusion by-products of hydrogen, while the presence of these elements blocks certain wavelengths of light within stars and tells us how massive, and old, they are. The xenon gas that forms the functional portion of every camera flash is the residue of not just normal stellar activity, but of rare supernovae, and tells us the sun is a son itself, being at least second-generation in the universe (it’s considered third generation, actually.)

One might ask how much use cosmology has to us; what purpose there is to knowing how the universe began. But this is the same kind of thinking trap as “serving one’s country,” above. Knowledge gained is available to be used everywhere, and it’s impossible to predict how, but I can list two prime examples. The first is, with the knowledge that we gain from space probes devoted to entirely unrelated tasks, we are (hopefully) developing the ability to ward off a cataclysmic collision with some wandering asteroid, a fate that affects this planet periodically and unpredictably. The second is that, by changing our impressions of human life from “deliberate and goal-oriented” (which religion provided us) to “incidental and insignificant” (which is what nature tells us,) we can see that our continued existence on this planet is not guaranteed, but requires careful stewardship, which might help head off doing something irretrievably stupid like depleting our natural resources too far.

While Singh mentions religion only in passing, I have more than a faint suspicion that Big Bang is written, at least in part, in response to the anti-science emphasis seen far too often today. Cute little sound bites and over-simplified arguments attempt to disguise the overwhelming body of evidence that we have regarding things like the Big Bang theory, and Singh’s book is a distinct, approachable, and entertaining response to such childish tactics. Anyone can deny whatever they choose, but this book demonstrates that they cannot do so with cosmology from any standpoint resembling intellectual honesty. Those with enough integrity to leave behind the gutter rules of debate will find there’s far too much evidence in support of the universe’s age and behavior to even create an argument.

Singh’s writing is concise and free-flowing, almost conversational, and while he talks about some of the more involved portions of physics, it is at a level understandable by virtually anyone. Anyone expecting a science book to be dense and require specific knowledge will be pleasantly surprised, and Big Bang can be handled by any reader from middle school on up. The biggest fault I had, virtually the only one, is that he deals with specific aspects of cosmology at the expense of the chronological order, so that the book skips back and forth a little and makes it hard to place things in the context of then-current knowledge – this is mostly true for the earlier sections. Other readers may find this easy to ignore, however. Big Bang is a great primer that brings the reader up-to-date with the efforts we’re making right now to piece together the largest historical event, well, ever, and is altogether fascinating, humbling, and encouraging.