Skip to main content

The Beginning and the End of Everything - Paul Parsons ****

It's a brave science writer who puts into a single, not over-long book, the entire cosmology of the universe from beginning to end, all the physics required to support it, and some of the history of science of the development of both the physics and cosmology. Luckily, Paul Parsons is a steady and highly experienced hand, who is able to introduce some of the most esoteric aspects of modern science while still leaving the reader feeling that they have a grasp of what's going on.

The individual components of the book - the big bang, the formation of stars and galaxies, black holes, dark matter and dark energy, the general theory of relativity and quantum physics, and all the rest - have been well covered in separate books many times, but what Parsons is able to do is to give us the latest information, including material from 2018, and to pull the whole together impressively well. So, for example, along with the more traditional means of exploring the universe through electromagnetic waves, we are able to discover the importance of the discovery of gravitational waves and can see how future gravitational wave observatories will help us to firm up and expand some aspects of cosmology.

It would be impossible to cover so much ground without a very light touch - this is a book that is rarely going to add much for the experienced reader of cosmology titles - however, for the relative beginner it's an absolute wonderful introduction to our current view of the universe, how it formed and where it's going. (This being the case, a further reading section would be good in the next edition.)

The two areas there are bits of extra material that older hands might not be so familiar with is the coverage of inflation and the work of Stephen Hawking. Parsons has some personal history from his time at university on the inflation front and is able to give one of the best descriptions I've seen of inflation and some of the variants thereof - the only slight oddity is that this gives us rather more depth on this topic than the rest of the book has. Similarly, Parsons is clearly a huge Hawking fan and gives quite a lot of detail on relevant aspects of his work, even if this does perhaps over-emphasising the significance of Hawking's final paper.

If the book has a weakness it's a tendency not to make clear which bits of what we're being told are solidly supported by additional observational data, and which are theories (or even philosophies) for which there is little confirming evidence, or are based on very simplified models of the universe. We're told, for example, 'the anthropic principle falls flat without a level II multiverse to back it up... if there's only one universe, the the fact that we find it to be suited to the emergence of life - especially when physics says this is unlikely - is genuinely baffling.' But (one version of) the anthropic principle exactly reflects this - it's not at all baffling, because we wouldn't be here to observe it were it not the case. And it doesn't matter how unlikely a particular universe is. If there is only one universe, that whichever one it is has to be very unlikely - making it a bit of a 'so what?' point.

Apart from a desire for a little more clarity in separation of the inevitable speculation that accompanies cosmology from the science (and a wish that we could have avoided the old chestnut that Giordano Bruno was martyred for his scientific views - he wasn't), this is a wonderful introduction to one of the most exciting and engaging aspects of science. It's doubly impressive that Parsons does so while covering so much, leaving little space to meet the characters involved, which is often used to give more engagement. I will be recommending this book to anyone looking for an introduction to cosmology.

Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

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 …

Six Impossible Things - John Gribbin *****

On first handling John Gribbin's book, it's impossible not to think of Carlo Rovelli's Seven Brief Lessons in Physics - both are very slim, elegant hardbacks with a numbered set of items within - yet Six Impossible Things is a far, far better book than its predecessor. Where Seven Brief Lessons uses purple prose and vagueness in what feels like a scientific taster menu, Gribbin gives us a feast of precision and clarity, with a phenomenal amount of information for such a compact space. It's a TARDIS of popular science books, and I loved it.

Like rather a lot of titles lately (notably Philip Ball's excellent Beyond Weird), what Gribbin is taking on is not the detail of quantum physics itself - although he does manage to get across its essence in two 'fits' (named after the sections of Hunting of the Snark - Gribbin includes Lewis Carroll's epic poem in his recommended reading, though it's such a shame that the superb version annotated by Martin Gardi…

Elizabeth Bear - Four Way Interview

Elizabeth Bear won the John W. Campbell award for Best New Writer in 2005 and has since published 15 novels and numerous short stories. She writes in both the SF and fantasy genres and has won critical acclaim in both. She has won the Hugo Award more than once. She lives in Massachusetts. Her latest title is Ancestral Night.

Why science fiction?

I've been a science fiction fan my entire life, and I feel like SF is the ideal framework for stories about humanity and how we can be better at it. Not just cautionary tales - though there's certainly also value in cautionary tales - but stories with some hope built in that we might, in fact, mature as a species and take some responsibility for things like reflexive bigotry and hate crimes (as I'm writing this, the heartbreaking news about the terrorist attack on Muslim worshipers in Christchurch is everywhere) and global climate destabilization. These are not intractable problems, but we need, as a species, the will to see that we …