2010-07-23

Book Review: "Big Bang" by Simon Singh

(CC-BY-NC-SA Das U-Blog by Prashanth)
This was actually given to me as a gift by the same relative who has The Undercover Economist. I will also say that I have read The Code Book, one of Simon Singh's other books, but it has been a few years since I read it, so I will not be reviewing it any time soon.
Singh starts with an overview of creation myths and the use of reason and science to determine whether the sun goes around the Earth or vice versa. He continues with the heightening and resolution of the debate between the geocentric universe and heliocentric universe camps, and introduces the debate between those who believed in an eternal universe and those who believed the universe had a moment of creation. He brings in the developments of relativity and the atomic model, the measurement of the speed of light, and the rise and fall of the ether hypothesis to lay the foundations for the theory of the Big Bang. He also discusses the debate between whether the Milky Way is our only galaxy or whether there are many galaxies separate from the Milky Way and its subsequent resolution, and connects this to the use of spectroscopy to show redshifting of galaxies to bolster the case for the Big Bang over the eternal universe theory. He continues with further developments in atomic theory and the postulation of CMB radiation (radiation coming from the farthest reaches of the universe dating back to 300000 years after the Big Bang) to frame the debate now between supporters of the Big Bang theory and supporters of the eternal universe theory, which had by then morphed into the Steady State theory (which held that the universe was expanding, but galaxies were forming in the voids as expansion happened, so the overall composition of the universe remained constant). He concludes with the solution of the nucleosynthesis problem (how elements heavier than helium could be formed in the early stages of the universe), the detection of CMB radiation, and the detection of tiny density variations in the early particle soup as the final pieces of evidence necessary to secure the Big Bang theory as the correct one. In the epilogue, he discusses some missing parts of the Big Bang theory, as well as its religious/philosophical implications.
In a sentence, I really like this book. (That was the sentence. The rest is extra.) It's a great overview of all of the science that led to the acceptance of the Big Bang as the dominant theory regarding the origin and state of the universe, and on top of that, it talks about all of the characters involved in its development. It is a fairly large book, but any formulae used are clearly explained in layperson's terms, and there are a lot of helpful illustrations tied with such formulae. More interesting than that, though, is the presence of a brief, illustrated summary section at the end of each chapter (because each chapter is approximately 80 pages long). This really helps to remind one of what one has read at the beginning of the chapter and how it ties in to later parts of the chapter. I also like how it talks about the arguments between people without just focusing on the science, as this adds a more human element to the history of it all. I would recommend this to anyone even remotely interested in the subject.
Follow the jump to read the rest.
Some of you may also know that Simon Singh was sued by the British Chiropractic Association for making critical remarks about their profession in print (i.e. libel). The suit was dropped in April of this year. I just wanted to add that this, thankfully, will not be able to happen to writers in the US thanks to this new bill (AFP via Google) that forbids US courts from enforcing foreign libel/slander judgments when it conflicts with the First Amendment rights of the defendant (of the libel/slander judgment). Anyway, I hope Simon Singh doesn't have to experience this ordeal again.

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