Skip to main content

Origins: the scientific story of creation - Jim Baggott ****

Every civilisation has its creation myths. These often beautiful stories describe how the world came into being and, most importantly in terms of the reason the stories exist, explore how we as humans relate to the wider universe. Jim Baggott, who is one of the few science writers able to make the Higgs boson comprehensible, has taken on an even greater challenge in writing a creation myth for the scientific age.
Origins is a weighty tome - literally. Oxford University Press either incorporate a chunk of heavy metal into the spine or (more likely) use a particularly heavyweight glossy paper in books like these, which mean that they are a positive drag for bedtime reading or posting, but look undoubtedly handsome. But what of the contents?
Baggott takes us chronologically from the origins of the universe, through the formation of stars and galaxies, on to the solar system coalescing and the Earth forming, through our planetary ages, bringing in the beginnings of life and the eventual evolution of homo sapiens. That's a whole lot of science to pack in. And because he almost entirely concentrates on current best theories, sticking to the chronology of 'creation' this does mean that he has to plunge in with heavyweight science from the start (general relativity is out of the way by page 20 or so), rather than easing us in gently with some history of science background to show the way the theories have developed over time.

It also means that there is limited opportunity for story, for narrative - and that the biggest drawback of this book. It's a creation myth without the backbone story, just leaving the bare bones of theory and observation, and it is diminished by that lack. Luckily, Baggott is too good a writer not to use as much friendly language as he can, and does throw in the limited stories behind some observation and discovery where appropriate - the Alpher, Bethe, Gamow paper springs to mind - but overall there is an impression of the reader being overwhelmed with a huge quantity of fact and theory. After all, in taking us from the Planck epoch to the present day, he not only has to encompass 13.8 billion years but also pretty well every bit of important science we now know.

Traditional creation myths were presented as fact, though they could be charmingly inconsistent. Genesis, for instance, contains two conflicting myths, while the Ancient Egyptians had a whole collection of incompatible variations, though this didn't really matter, because these were stories with a message, rather than an attempt at history or science. You might expect that a scientific creation myth would do away with such uncertainty, but though Baggott does present us primarily with the best accepted current theories, he points out that alternatives exist - and that there are some points, such as the very beginning of the universe, or the first instance of life, where it's still most honest to say 'We don't know.'

Overall this is a brave and impressive attempt at an almost impossible task. I have given Origins four stars because I think that Baggott has made an excellent stab at this, but the result is not a book that can have the inspirational storyline and narrative power of the very best popular science. It's just the nature of the beast.


Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…

The Cosmic Mystery Tour – Nicholas Mee ****

This is another book, like last year’s Enjoy Our Universe by Alvaro de Rújula, that sets out to provide a light-hearted introduction to physics and astrophysics for the general reader. It’s from the same publisher (OUP) and packaged in the same way: as a high quality small-format hardback with 200 glossy pages, the majority of them adorned with colour pictures. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Unlike its predecessor, this new book by Nicholas Mee delivers exactly what it promises.

It’s not that de Rújula’s book was a bad one, but he just wasn’t able to think his way into the reader’s mind. He kept saying ‘physics is fun’, but he was talking about the fun a professional physicist gets out of doing it – which is a very arcane, often highly mathematical, type of fun. The result, for a non-specialist reader, was actually quite alienating. Mee, on the other hand, understands exactly how his readers think, what they find interesting, and the details that – no matter how important they …

Professor Maxwell's Duplicitous Demon - Brian Clegg ****

‘It’s not uncommon when trying to give Maxwell his rightful place in the pantheon of physics to bracket him with Newton and Einstein’, Brian Clegg says towards the end of this book. In one sense that’s perfectly true. Dip into any physics textbook and you’ll see Maxwell’s name at least as often as the other two. His greatest achievement – Maxwell’s equations – did for electromagnetism what Newton had done for gravity, while laying the essential theoretical groundwork for everything Einstein was to do.

There’s a big difference, though. A few years ago, when I was offered the chance to write short biographies of Newton and Einstein, I jumped at it – because they addressed mysteries of the universe that anyone can relate to, and their lives outside physics were, if anything, even more fascinating. At the risk of sounding downright rude, you can’t say either of those things about James Clerk Maxwell. In spite of that, Brian Clegg has done a wonderful job here of recounting just what Maxwel…