Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Brian Clegg's "Before the Big Bang": Book Review

Clegg combines a history of myth ("a story with a purpose") and science as they struggle to come to terms with creation. His lively narrative strives by frequent metaphor and short chapters to convey an incredibly difficult topic. I never thought I'd be able to understand such astrophysical speculation based on quantum theory and thought-experiments, but thanks to Clegg's clarity, I could, more or less.

Parts of this study will inevitably cause the most nimble mind to quail, given models based on our universe being a 2-d holographic projection into 3-d for us to observe, or a "bit-it" parallel that imagines information itself becoming the building blocks of a universe constructed as we learn to conceive it, or one that is a "multiple universe" one based on the "choices" that a light wave may "make" as we watch it and try to measure it. Not to be confused with multiverses!

That Clegg shows us how this all came to be in the minds of astronomers over the centuries, especially most recently as satellites and telescopes begin to combine with CERN to hint at the previously unimaginable, is an achievement. He tells in a dozen relatively snappy chapters the pre-history of the theories that led to the Big Bang, and then the fudge-factor of lambda added by Einstein as he resisted the quantum mechanics that led to the breakthroughs that eventually eroded the Steady State Fred Hoyle theory in favor of the Big Bang.

Yet, the holes punched in to this model by math and logic, for some astronomers, have then whittled away even this paradigm. "Groundhog Universes" along the Big Crumple, the dodahecadron-shaped possibility of a universe that eludes our whole perception due to our inability to "see" some of its directions, may indicate Clegg's favorite model's replacement of the Big Bang with the Steinhardt-Turok "bouncing branes" set-up. See more about this elsewhere, but this may show another universe a millimeter away from ours with enough ripples in the space-time fabric to allow for gravitational anamolies and a sort of mirror-pattern that shows perhaps a universe previous to the creation of our own.

Such ideas are hard to sum up, but Clegg does his best. This book may often retell the familiar and he has written often on the history of astronomy; he may repeat much, taking about two-thirds of the book to get to where I figured, with the Big Crumple, he'd have arrived far earlier, but much ground for him is smoothed out and worked over before he gets to the latest suppositions. This does slow the book down markedly, but aimed at non-scientists such as myself, such elaboration may be necessary given the immense difficulty of laying out in comprehensible terms (no formulae here) the research of experts.

I do think he gave short shrift to Buddhist cosmological conceptions early on when dismissing these as possible patterns of early thinkers, and he could have also slowed down to dig deeper into the plasma explanations that account for a significant foundation for the multi-dimensional membranes. And, I aver that Clegg needed to flesh out the "universe in a black hole" theory more fully; some of his major points get not lost in the cosmic shuffle of "what-ifs," but they do flash by for the less-skilled layman's eye rather quickly and can be missed too easily.

All in all, a lively primer that as a non-scientist I found answered many of my questions about a question that always fascinated me, and that I did not know had so many analogues. Others more versed in astrophysics may well contend with the devils in the details; to me on the outside, I think Clegg keeps his own biases clear and allows for the chance that as with all scientific theories, nobody can cling to one explanation for such a vast and nearly unprovable subject. The sheer headiness of the glimmer that we can see past our own universe's beginnings is itself cause for the most rarified delight. Clegg keeps his sense of humor, his balance between rigor and skepticism, and his own sense of wonder shows. I recommend this book and thank him for his considerable efforts. (Amazon US 8/09)

1 comment:

Brian Clegg said...

Thank you for your very positive review.

Brian Clegg