Skip to main content

Before Time Began - Helmut Satz **

This is an odd little book. The aim seems to be to provide more detail about the most widely accepted cosmological theories than we usually get in a popular science title, which to some extent it does - but in a way that, for me, fails the Feynman test (more on that in a moment).

In his introduction, Helmut Satz tell us that not everyone agrees with some of the things he is going to describe, but I'm not sure that's good enough. For example, we are presented with the full current inflation theory as if it were fact, yet it seems to be going through a whole lot of uncertainty at the time of writing. It's fine to present the best accepted theory, but when there is significant concern about it, it's important to at least outline why it has problems and where we go from here.

In content terms, it's hard to fault what Satz covers - it gives us everything from a description of spontaneous symmetry breaking to the Higgs field, all with significantly more detail than you might normally expect. There's plenty too, for example, on nucleosynthesis and the cosmic microwave background. The problem I have with this book is the way this is presented.

There's one trivial issue. I hate the way the book is structured. It treats all the headings as if they were part of the body text. This totally misunderstands the point of headings, which is to provide an indicator of a clear break. What's more, readers don't always read the text of a heading, so end up with disjointed text. It's ironic that a book about the structure of the universe so messes up the structure of a book.

The bigger issue, though, is that Feynman test. The great American physicist Richard Feynman famously made the distinction between knowing something and knowing the name of something. Feynman pointed out that his dad taught him as a kid when looking at birds: 'You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing—that’s what counts.'

I got exactly that feeling here - we're told the name of everything but don't get any feel for what's really happening or why it's happening. Take transitions and spontaneous symmetry breaking - there is a good example made using magnetisation (much clearer than some of the analogies I've seen) - but the phenomenon is just described. We get no idea why this is happening. Elsewhere analogies are used, but not necessarily very effectively. In describing the action of the Higgs field we are told it's a bit like the way a snowball gains mass by rolling through snow. But the snow it rolls through is the same material and itself has mass - the snowball is just accreting mass - so as an analogy it provides little benefit.

I don't think this book is a waste of time. It will fill in some gaps for those who only have a conventional popular science view of cosmology and may encourage some to move onto the more mathematical material. But I don't think it really achieves what it sets out to do.

Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you

Review by Brian Clegg


  1. Thanks. Yet another occasion where you have saved me a lot of time and frustration. Keep up the good work


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The God Game (SF) - Danny Tobey *****

Wow. I'm not sure I've ever read a book that was quite such an adrenaline rush - certainly it has been a long time since I've read a science fiction title which has kept me wanting to get back to it and read more so fiercely. 

In some ways, what we have here is a cyber-SF equivalent of Stephen King's It. A bunch of misfit American high school students face a remarkably powerful evil adversary - though in this case, at the beginning, their foe appears to be able to transform their worlds for the better.

Rather than a supernatural evil, the students take on a rogue AI computer game that thinks it is a god - and has the powers to back its belief. Playing the game is a mix of a virtual reality adventure like Pokemon Go and a real world treasure hunt. Players can get rewards for carrying out tasks - delivering a parcel, for example, which can be used to buy favours, abilities in the game and real objects. But once you are in the game, it doesn't want to let you go and is …

Uncertainty - Kostas Kampourakis and Kevin McCain ***

This is intended as a follow-on to Stuart Firestein's two books, the excellent Ignorance and its sequel, Failure, which cut through some of the myths about the nature of science and how it's not so much about facts as about what we don't know and how we search for explanations. The authors of Uncertainty do pretty much what they set out to do in explaining the significance of uncertainty and why it can make it difficult to present scientific findings to the public, who expect black-and-white facts, not grey probabilities, which can seem to some like dithering.

However, I didn't get on awfully well with the book. A minor issue was the size - it was just too physically small to hold comfortably, which was irritating. More significantly, it felt like a magazine article that was inflated to make a book. There really was only one essential point made over and over again, with a handful of repeated examples. I want something more from a book - more context and depth - that …

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …