Monday, January 5, 2009

May, Moore & Lintott's "Bang! The Complete History of the Universe": Book Review

A while back, I read a short interview with Brian May; he described in understandable and interesting terms his long-delayed (for understandable reasons given his tenure in Queen) dissertation on interstellar dust. Impressed, I made a note to find this forthcoming astronomy text. On pg. 118, we learn that a book by Patrick Moore, "The Earth," in Brian May's school library introduced him to trilobites, "and inspired him to a life-long passion for astronomy." My sons found this book and started to borrow it themselves-- a compliment to the example set by Moore and continued by his colleagues. Compiled by May with BBC presenters Sir Patrick Moore and Chris Lintott, it's a handsome volume with plenty of helpful illustrations and color photographs. Those enchanted by the images from the Hubble Space Telescope may find many more within this wide-ranging yet compact overview.

Tucked down on the copyright page is a note on the lenticular explosion on the cover. It tries not to replicate the Big Bang, but allows us to imagine it if we could somehow step outside of our universe! The editors remind us, in the encouraging tone that permeates their first-person plural prose:
"However, we really have an even more privileged position-- we are all actually inside of the mother of all explosions, and the further we peer into space, the more we realize that, all around us, everywhere we look, the Big Bang is what we see."

As someone with no background but a long-dormant childhood exposure to the basics of astronomy, I found parts of this challenging, as to be expected. Dark matter, dark energy, particle physics, and what happened in the earliest moments after the Big Bang likewise present difficulties for those who've studied these matters for decades. Not to mention the anthropic principle, easier though that conjecture may be to summarize. The editors strive, nonetheless, to tell us what scientists know and what they conjecture in clear, conversational, and careful language.

The organization follows a timescale. "Grey areas" give sidebars on anecdotes and digressions; the main text takes you from as far back as we can guesstimate to light, evolution of the universe, stars and planets, life's emergence, and what the future holds, and the end. "We are drifting slowly but inexorably into the long twilight of the universe." (147)

It's a sobering look at the way we came to be, and humbling in its scope. Facing what appears to be the "Cosmological Constant," a Big Rip possible long after the Big Bang, our boastful humanity's dwarfed indeed by this "accelerating descent into darkness." Radiation continues even after time's annihilation.(150) For now, we learn what we can: "A Universe that ends in any of these ways seems pointless, and there well may be a vital factor that we are missing." (154) They conclude in their epilogue that they've tried to explain "how" things have happened, but never "why."
"If we spent a lifetime trying to understand completely how a single daffodil is made, we would be no nearer to understanding why such beauty is shown to us; nevertheless, we can have endless fun satisfying our curiosity in both areas. We wish you endless fun." (157)
So they conclude their text!

Their narrative may alter even in the next decade, all the more astonishingly, given the rapid pace of discoveries. Even the 2008 copy I have published by Johns Hopkins UP is a second edition, two years after the first with added material. The up-to-date, solid, and speculative blend of excitement, hesitation, and wonder typifies the thoughtful, understandably almost awed tone of much of the material that stretches any reader's mind while pondering the contents here. A series of biographies of famous astronomers, a glossary, a timeline, and a section on "Practical Astronomy" by Moore conclude this short but comprehensive book which manages to live up to its ambitious title.

(Review posted today to Amazon US.) See the book's website:

No comments: