Friday, 20 February 2015

Before the Big Bang - John Gribbin ****

In this compact (50 page) ebook, veteran popular science writer John Gribbin takes on the period in the current best-accepted theory of the origin of the universe, the hot big bang theory, that came before the big bang itself.

Although I also wrote a book called Before the Big Bang, I'm not overly miffed as this is a totally different approach. Where my book was about the historical context leading up to the big bang theory, plus alternative models of the origin of the universe, some of which have more of a 'before' than the vanilla big bang theory, Gribbin is filling in a much misunderstood aspect of this central cosmological theory. As he frequently points out, the 'big bang' in question is not the beginning of the universe, but the point after inflation when things get seriously hot (though it's not totally clear that Fred Hoyle meant this at the moment he coined the term).

Gribbin starts us off with a bit of background, revealing, for instance, in a more robust fashion than usual that Lemaitre and not Hubble was the discoverer of what is now known as Hubble's law. He then gives a clear picture of the nature of the big bang itself, based on a book by Soviet cosmologist Igor Novikov that dates back to the late 1970s, and remarkably is still pretty much in line with current understanding.

From there, Gribbin gives us an excellent exploration of inflation and some of the reasoning behind the possibility of a singularity (or at least near-singularity) for the actual beginning of our universe, followed up with a good summary of the multiverse concept, and how it could be driven by different possible kinds of inflation, all brought up to date with useful analysis of the BICEP2 mis-discovery of evidence for inflation.

Gribbin could have been a little less definitive about some of this, because however much cosmologists like to think they've left their reputation for speculation behind, there is still some (highly educated) guesswork in the field. When Gribbin says 'The story of the Big Bang is as well established as any story in science,' it feels a bit like when at the start of the twentieth century budding physicists were told 'there are only a few minor details to sort out, but basically we've got physics cracked.' And then relativity and quantum theory came along. So for instance, on dark matter, Gribbin comments 'we now know... that the Universe also contains something called dark matter', where I think it would be more balanced to say 'we now think...' but generally speaking the only other negative here is that because the book(let) is so short, it is quite condensed information, so is not as easy a read as the author's full length books.

If you've got the price of a cup of coffee to spare, why not give your caffeine addiction a miss and spend it instead on something that really will improve the mind? There'll even be some change.

Review by Brian Clegg

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