Saturday, 3 October 2015

13.8: the quest to find the true age of the universe ad the theory of everything - John Gribbin ****

If we had such a thing as a science writers' hall of fame, John Gribbin would be one of its first inductees. As one of the UK's most respected veterans of the field, and with a background in astrophysics, Gribbin is uniquely placed to take us on a guided tour of the history of attempts to establish the age of the universe, and to combine the general theory of relativity and quantum theory, almost certainly necessary if we are to have an effective picture of the earliest moments of existence.

It says a lot for Gribbin's grasp of the topic that he can write a book where, to be honest, the only real new aspect is changing the generally accepted age of the universe from 13.7 billion years to 13.8 and yet still make his content feel fresh and approachable. One of the ways he does this is to avoid going into too much depth on stories that have been told many times before. It's always a difficult balance. Do you, for instance, tell the story of the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB) in any detail, as any regular reader of popular science will have seen it many times before? But on the other hand, there will be some readers for whom it is a new and interesting story.

 The only downside of the trimming of the stories to their bare bones is that they lose a certain personal flavour and intrigue. So, for instance, in the CMB case, although the infamous pigeon droppings are mentioned, we don't hear the rather bizarre story of the way that the pigeon problem was dealt with. There is one point where this brevity is definitely overplayed. In the prologue, Gribbin tells us how Gamow, Alpher and Herman were upset when the discovery of the CMB was announced without any mention of then. He then goes on to say 'The resulting recriminations have been well documented by John Mather and John Bgoslough, two later players in the cosmic background game: there is no need to elaborate on them here.' In this case, we don't just missed the story, we're told there is a story but that we aren't going to hear what it is. That's just frustrating.

If I have one other slight complaint it is that the author rather repeatedly throws in remarks about having worked with somebody involved, or that he has been supervised by somebody involved, or been on a team that worked on something connected... this doesn't really add anything to the telling, but leaves the reader feeling as if there's an unnecessary attempt to make this history personal.

Overall, 13.8 is a very solid account of how we came to the currently accepted age of the universe. It may not offer much on the alternative theories of the origin of the universe, but it's not trying to do this. Instead it gives powerful insights into a detective story that is attempting to perform the ultimate cold case CSI - uncovering what happened 13.8 billion years ago - and that has over the years had many false starts and misapprehensions before reaching our current state of knowledge. What's more, as a handsome hardback it is an attractive addition to any popular science shelf. Once again, Gribbin delivers.

Review by Brian Clegg

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