Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Book Review : Big Bang

Book Review : Big Bang
Author : Simon Singh
My Rating : 5 out of 5 stars

The complete title of the book is "Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe". This title is a little bit misleading, as in "incomplete". This is not a book that details how the Big Bang model explains the creation of the universe. Of course it covers basic ideas of that model, but the focus of the book is on how mankind reached the conclusion that this is indeed a good model to explain the creation of the universe.

I found that style of coverage extremely informative. Simon Singh starts with very early astronomers and explains how they measured the size of earth, distances to moon and sun etc. Then proceeds through the history of how the models of universe kept changing, what challenges the new models faced and who were the people instrumental in proposing these models with appropriate scientific reasoning.

That is the main point of the book. For example, Singh is not laughing at how Ptolemy got it wrong. He clearly gives what observations supported the earth centric model and why it was difficult for ancient people to accept a sun centric model. He presents checklists for comparing competing theories. Throughout the book he explains how science progresses and how a paradigm shift occurs. He also spends some time on the role of serendipity and speculation involved in scientific advances.

The book tracks the evolution of the models in almost a perfect chronological order. Every time a great new insight enhances the model, he delves deeper into the life and struggles of the protagonists. This makes it a very long book - nearly 500 pages. The fact that Singh keeps the reader engaged and glued to the book throughout, is a remarkable achievement. It's not just because of the empathetic story telling. Singh really wants the reader to understand the concepts. He does not shy away from using equations and gives ample diagrams. The explanations in this book are amongst the best I have read.

Most people would already know about what new ideas Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo contributed to the model of the universe. But there are so many other scientists and astronomers that contributed to the model that eventually culminated into Big Bang. Singh makes great effort to give credit to all those. And lucidly explains exactly how their ideas fit together. It's impossible to review all the information in this tome. I immensely enjoyed the material about the 20th century astronomers as it was quite new to me. The battle between Steady State theory and Big Bang makes for some great reading.

Because of the title and material in many current books on popular science, some readers may start with expectations that can lead to a bit of disappointment. The book essentially stops at the end of last century. This leaves out a lot of cutting edge topics (dark matter, dark energy, supernova, singularities and inflation to name a few). More interestingly, Einstein's contributions to the model are covered in great detail, but you won't find much explanation about his relativity theories, beyond what's needed to explain Big Bang. Singh is focused and that's fine by me. So, if you want to understand more about say relativity theory and quantum mechanics, I suggest looking elsewhere - like books by Brian Greene.

I am as much impressed by this book as I was with the author's other book - Fermat's Enigma. Big Bang is one the most revolutionary ideas that humans have dared to imagine and validate. This is the best book to familiarize yourself with that.

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