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.
Hardback 

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty. The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science. Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a n

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under