Skip to main content

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.


Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you

Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

How to Drive a Nuclear Reactor - Colin Tucker ****

How To Drive A Nuclear Reactor does exactly what it says on the tin. The book is a general overview of nuclear reactors. From the basic principles that make them work through to what buttons to press in what order (and of course how and why they can go wrong).Nuclear power could be a good step on the path to a greener energy future, but there is a lot of understandable fear. This book can give some idea of what an incredible feat of both science and engineering one of these machines is and, hopefully, make anyone reading it feel far more comfortable about them.The book presents information about everything, almost down to the literal nuts and bolts, giving you a near complete understanding of how a nuclear works. From putting in the fuel to getting out the power and down from the control panel to the construction material. Everything you could ever want to know is here. By the end you'll likely feel ready to walk into a control room and get started (do not try doing this, nuclear …

Twenty Worlds - Niall Deacon *****

This is a truly entertaining and informative book, but the reason I’m giving it the full five stars has as much to do with the refreshing novelty of the author’s style as anything else. There’s novelty in the subject-matter too – the wide variety of recently discovered exoplanets orbiting other stars – but even so this is the third book on the topic that I’ve read. The first two were a lot less fun to read, and (without naming and shaming the authors) it’s worth a brief diversion to explain why.The first author was a university professor with a vast knowledge of the subject, who seemed determined to convey the entirety of that knowledge without stopping to think whether it was interesting or necessary for a general audience. The second author – another academic – took a different but equally tedious approach, with a plodding chronological account that focused as much on the dull routine of the scientists involved as on their work.Niall Deacon doesn’t make either of those mistakes. He’…

Ingredients - George Zaidan ***

Is processed food bad for you? That’s the big question that George Zaiden seeks to answer in Ingredients: The Strange Chemistry of Plants, Poisons & Processed Foods. Of course, since this is a book, and not a tweet, the answer is a little more complicated than yes or no.

Taking a broader look, the book explores the things that we put into (and onto) ourselves when we eat, smoke, or use sunscreen. Zaidan seeks to explore not just whether these things are good for us or not, but how we know whether certain ingredients are harmful.

I really appreciate Zaidan’s dissection of the scientific method, and how we learn about the effects of various chemicals. He goes through the benefits and shortfalls of various types of scientific studies in even-handed and easily accessible ways.

I also enjoyed his commentary on the way the press presents nutritional findings. You often see things like 'Coffee causes/cures/prevents/worsens cancer' and Zaidan goes through where these often contradict…