Apr 19, 2005

books - big bang

I've just finished reading Simon Singh's "Big Bang - The Origin of the Universe". Even at 500 pages it's quite a quick read due to his easy writing style. I like Simon Singh. I've read his other two books - "The Code Book" (cryptography) and "Fermat's Enigma" (math). I wouldn't say that he's the perfect writer for me because he doesn't get into the nitty gritty of each subject he discusses. The target audience is clearly a lay person. For all 3 subjects I knew most of the findings and had a deeper understanding of the topics than written about in the book.

So why do I like reading Singh?

First, Singh does a wonderful job of researching the history of the topic. He always uncovers some unknown aspect to the story that you and most other writers have completely missed. He ultimately likes to tell stories about people rather than the science. He doesn't just provide a main character's background ("so and so was born in Luxembourg in 1862..."). He gets into the inner workings of that person's mind as well as the circumstances around the person that influenced how they behaved. In this book I gained an appreciation of how scientists who are the first to point out some new theory or empirical observation sometimes get zero credit because they are simply overlooked. It can be as simple as being the least known name on a paper co-authored with better known names. And as painful as cases where others have received top awards like the Nobel at the expense of others. This hard core research also gives the reader some comfort that Singh isn't misrepresenting the facts and theories he's talking about. He is quite thorough and it makes the reader understand the science better.

Second, Singh frames the issues that are being addressed in a nice framework. Maybe it's the consultant in me, but this helps immensely in understanding the bigger picture around the topic. In this case he lays out how the big bang theory first came to light and how it measured up to other competing theories - showing both pros and cons. And then resolving this framework by detailing how the cons were addressed for the prevailing theory. These non-prevailing ideas are sometimes glossed over in other books because with hindsight they usually seem to be silly theories. They rarely seem that way at the time. Stephen J. Gould also was very good at laying structure out in a similar manner.

Third, Singh has a genuine love of the topics and science he writes about. He's far enough away from the core researchers and participants that he isn't jaded by some of the realities of science (fund raising, competitive infighting, etc.). He quotes Carl Sagan a lot and I suspect Cosmos captured his imagination back in the 80s as it did with me. He brings a slightly romantic quality to science that belies some of the realities. But this is not a bad thing for the casual reader.

What's wrong with the book? I was a tad disappointed that Singh did not expound on some of the more recent discoveries. Things like the inflationary period and expansion/dark energy are going to lead to some very interesting changes to the model. After the detection of variations in the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation, the book touches very very lightly on these newer findings before closing. Perhaps he wanted to root the book in aspects of the Big Bang that are well proven. Or perhaps he's planned a sequel.

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