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Big Bang (Ladybird Expert) - Marcus Chown ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Marcus Chown does a remarkable job at packing in information on the big bang, given only around 25 sides of small format paper to work with. He gives us the concepts, plenty about the cosmic microwave background, plus the likes of dark energy, dark matter, inflation and the multiverse. To be honest, the illustrations were largely pointless, apart from maintaining the format, and it might have been better to have had more text - but I felt the right reader would get more out of this than, say, one of Carlo Rovelli's more florid titles.

Who is the right reader? Although the book is apparently aimed at adults, I'd say intelligent year 6s and above. For adults it is very much a beginner's primer, and the reader might feel a touch patronised, especially by those illustrations, which sometimes suffer from the same kind of hilarious literalism as the old Top of the Pops dance group, Pan's People. I was particularly taken by the picture for 'Afterglow of creation.' To begin with I couldn't understand why it showed a glowing woman, dressed in black, floating in space. Then I realised the text said 'its brightness would vary with energy like a glowing body, paradoxically known as a "black body". She was, it seems, a demonstration of black body radiation.

Although Chown does get a remarkable amount in such a tiny space, there are a couple of occasions when it results in over-simplification or confusion. This is most notable with inflationary theory. Firstly the inflation after the big bang is stated as fact, despite there being growing concern about the validity of the theory. As current best accepted theory, it definitely should have been presented, but perhaps ought to have been qualified. Then the next page deals with the decidedly more speculative concept of eternal inflation, but doesn't make it clear this is something extra. Another example - on page 26, Chown rightly says 'The fireball picture painted by the term Big Bang is wrong in almost every respect.' Yet he opens the book by saying 'Around 13.82 billion years ago all matter, energy, space - and even time - erupted into being in a titanic fireball called the Big Bang.' It's not entirely consistent.

While there are some negatives, they are imposed by the format. Because of Chown's writing, I think this book is worthy of four stars for the right audience. Think of it as a popular science amuse bouche, to get the appetite whetted. And as such, for the true beginner, it does a good job.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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