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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.


Review by Brian Clegg


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