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Big Bang – Simon Singh *****

The cover of this big book is rather disconcerting. It looks like a pack of washing powder. And like all the best washing powder, it is splashed with a remarkable claim: “The most important scientific discovery of all time and why you need to know about it.”
All I can say about that is don’t be put off by it! It’s very hard to see anything in cosmology could ever be “the most important discovery”, as to be honest it’s not going to do an awful lot to change anyone’s life. It may well be the most fundamental discovery – and it’s certainly one of the most fascinating, but surely not most important. And for that matter, do we really need to know about it? Well, no. But that’s not the point of popular science. It’s about the delight of discovery, the wonder of a very wonderful universe – in terms of need-to-know it’s in the “doesn’t amount to a hill of beans” class.
HOWEVER this is all the packaging, and I stress that you shouldn’t let it put you off the contents, because this is one of the best popular science books of the year. It’s page-turning readable, it’s enjoyable and it is pitched just right to provide plenty of knowledge and that essential wonder without baffling. Simon Singh has confirmed his position as one of the top science popularisers alive.
The aim of the book is to help us understand what the Big Bang is all about. Singh takes the reader back to the earliest theories of the universe and gradually builds to the present day with plenty of enjoyable excursions. Just occasionally the historical ventures don’t feel quite right – Galileo, for instance, is so well documented that a pocket biography feels uncomfortably restrictive and there’s something odd about the description of how Einstein came to conceive of Special Relativity, but these are tiny niggles. It looks like it’s going to be too long as well, but this is an illusion. They’ve used quite big print, unusually well spaced, perhaps because a “big” subject needed a big book or even (God help us) because the success of Bryson’s doorstop of a book has started a trend towards big fat popular science.
It’s a delight to find out more about the renegade cosmologist Fred Hoyle, both as a person and as a genius. Hoyle’s outspoken views (a Yorkshireman – need we say more) and refreshing tendency to come out with original and exciting ideas without too much concern about whether or not they are right have tended to obscure what a big contribution he made to the understanding of stellar formation of the elements and cosmology, despite backing the wrong horse on the Big Bang versus Steady State controversy.
Singh leads us beautifully through the Big Bang’s transit from vague theory to one that was almost universally (sorry) accepted, finishing with the impact of the cosmic background radiation studies, particularly the results from the COBE satellite. The supporters of the alternative Steady State theory would throw up one last alternative, but there was little enthusiasm for it: Big Bang had won.
One last thought – if you’re reading it in public, you might like to reassure everyone in a loud voice “it’s about the origin of the universe” – or the title might make them suspect you of reading something a little less salubrious. But whatever you do, read it – this is a great popular science book from a master of the craft. If it whets your appetite and you want to read further on the origins of the universe and matter, consider going on to Marcus Chown’s excellent cosmological duo, Afterglow of Creation and the Magic Furnace.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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