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Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe

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Overview

We've all heard of the Big Bang, and yet few of us truly know what it is.

Renowned for making difficult ideas much less difficult than they might first appear, Simon Singh is our perfect guide to explaining why cosmologists believe that the Big Bang is an accurate description of the origin and evolution of the universe.

This highly readable and entertaining book tells the story of the many brilliant, often eccentric scientists who fought ...

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Overview

We've all heard of the Big Bang, and yet few of us truly know what it is.

Renowned for making difficult ideas much less difficult than they might first appear, Simon Singh is our perfect guide to explaining why cosmologists believe that the Big Bang is an accurate description of the origin and evolution of the universe.

This highly readable and entertaining book tells the story of the many brilliant, often eccentric scientists who fought against the establishment idea of an eternal and unchanging cosmos. From such early Greek cosmologists as Anaximander to recent satellite measurements taken deep in space, Big Bang is a narrative full of anecdotes and personal histories. With characteristic clarity, Simon Singh tells the centuries-long story of mankind's attempt to understand how the universe came to be, a story which itself begins some 14 billion years ago (give or take a billion years). Simon Singh shows us that it is within the capability of all of us — in his expert hands — to understand the Big Bang: the fundamental theory in all of science, and a high point — perhaps the high point — of human achievement.

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Editorial Reviews

James Gleick
“This book is a blast...who knew that the Big Bang could be so much fun?”
Sylvia Nasar
“An expert but friendly guide to help you decode the mysteries [of the universe] with crisp, clear running commentary.”
Saturday Daily Telegraph (London)
“Singh’s unerring eye for picturesque anecdotes and his capacity for simplifying complex scientific ideas is a winning formula.”
New Scientist
“Highly readable… Singh brings the colourful protagonists in his story to life.”
Chicago Tribune
“Brings together...the geniuses who have secured communications, saved lives, and influenced the fate of nations. A pleasure to read.”
San Diego Union-Tribune
“Singh is a gifted writer…a good storyteller…and [he] knows how to describe and explain complex and esoteric subjects.”
USA Today
“Entertaining and satisfying. . . . Offers a fascinating glimpse into the mostly secret competition between codemakers and codebreakers.”
The Mail (on Sunday)
“(Singh) is a gifted expositor, ready to venture to places other science popularisers don’t even try to reach.”
New York Times
“It’s hard to imagine a grander, more thrilling story…fast-paced…hugely entertaining…Big Bang is, quite literally, cosmic.”
New York Newsday
“Fascinating…Simon Singh loves storytelling and has a knack for digging up underappreciated characters.”
London Times (Sunday)
“Singh is one of the best science journalists writing today...Impressive.”
Wall Street Journal
“Singh spins tales of cryptic intrigue in every chapter.”
Economist
“Enthralling...commendably lucid...[Singh’s] book provides a timely and entertaining summary of the subject.”
Scientific American
“An absorbing tale of codemaking and codebreaking over the centuries.”
New York Times on Fermat's Enigma
“An excellent account of one of the most dramatic and moving events of the century.”
Chicago Tribune on The Code Book
“Brings together...the geniuses who have secured communications, saved lives, and influenced the fate of nations. A pleasure to read.”
Wall Street Journal on The Code Book
“Singh spins tales of cryptic intrigue in every chapter.”
Scientific American on The Code Book
“An absorbing tale of codemaking and codebreaking over the centuries.”
USA Today on The Code Book
“Entertaining and satisfying. . . . Offers a fascinating glimpse into the mostly secret competition between codemakers and codebreakers.”
Economist on The Code Book
“Enthralling...commendably lucid...[Singh’s] book provides a timely and entertaining summary of the subject.”
New York Times
“An excellent account of one of the most dramatic and moving events of the century.”
New Scientist
“Highly readable… Singh brings the colourful protagonists in his story to life.”
New York Newsday
“Fascinating…Simon Singh loves storytelling and has a knack for digging up underappreciated characters.”
San Diego Union-Tribune
“Singh is a gifted writer…a good storyteller…and [he] knows how to describe and explain complex and esoteric subjects.”
London Times (Sunday)
“Singh is one of the best science journalists writing today...Impressive.”
Saturday Daily Telegraph (London)
“Singh’s unerring eye for picturesque anecdotes and his capacity for simplifying complex scientific ideas is a winning formula.”
The Mail (on Sunday)
“(Singh) is a gifted expositor, ready to venture to places other science popularisers don’t even try to reach.”
Dennis Drabelle
Above all, Singh keeps track of the human stories behind the evolution of an idea. … Like Singh himself, Gamow could both do the science and make it comprehensible to lay readers, becoming famous for his fantasy Mr. Tompkins in Hollywood, "in which the speed of light was just a few kilometres per hour, so that a bicycle ride would reveal the weird effects of relativity. . . ."
— The Washington Post
William Grimes
It is hard to imagine a grander, more thrilling story than the one Simon Singh tells in Big Bang. His fast-paced history of the Big Bang theory encompasses all of recorded human history, from the first attempts to measure Earth and the stars to the discovery of quasars and dark matter. It moves, smoothly and rapidly, from the Greeks to Copernicus and then to Einstein and the rest of the 20th-century theorists whom Mr. Singh calls the "mavericks of the cosmos." It is an interplanetary voyage that transports the reader, in space and time, from the cramped confines of the Ptolemaic system to the current expanding universe, created in an explosion some 10 billion to 20 billion years ago, with distances measured in billions of light years. Big Bang. is, quite literally, cosmic.
— The New York Times
Library Journal
Writing in a manner that almost any reader will understand and enjoy, best-selling author Singh (Fermat's Enigma) here presents a brief history of the origins of the universe, taking on the most important scientific theory ever postulated. He begins with a historical overview of how scientific thought changed from mythology to cosmology, then moves to the debate between the steady state model of an eternal universe and the Big Bang theory, which saw the universe as beginning at a unique moment that was followed by rapid expansion. Rejected by Einstein, the Big Bang theory lost favor with the scientific community, but over time, astronomers used increasingly powerful telescopes to provide the proof needed to sway scientific minds. Singh shows that this debate was fought long and hard, moving into the public sector as a result of several popular books and radios broadcasts. While the Big Bang model is now widely accepted as the way in which the universe was created, the question remains, What came before the Big Bang? This readable book provides an accessible overview of this complex scientific theory. Recommended for all college collections and larger public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 9/15/04.]-Gloria Maxwell, Penn Valley Community Coll., Kansas City, MO Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A historical overview of the science leading to acceptance of the Big Bang theory. Former BBC producer Singh (Fermat's Enigma, 1997; The Code Book, 1999) takes advantage of his sweeping subject to cover a wide swath of scientific history. After a glance at creation myths from around the world, he turns to the Greek philosophers, the first to base their speculations on actual data. Ptolemy's system, with Earth at the center of a small universe, gave way to Copernicus's Sun-centered scheme, bolstered by early telescopic observations and given a solid foundation by Newton's gravitational law. Over the next two centuries, astronomers made it clear that the universe was both larger and older than had been believed. After Einstein refined Newtonian gravitation, the Russian mathematician Alexander Friedman found that Relativity implied an expanding universe. Astronomical observations-notably by Edwin Hubble-soon provided confirmation. That led the Belgian priest and astronomer Georges Lemaitre to propose that the universe had grown from a single point at some time in the past: the germ of the Big Bang theory. In the early 1940s, Lemaitre's speculation was fleshed out by George Gamow and his student Ralph Alpher; at the same time, the British astronomers Fred Hoyle and Thomas Gold entered the debate with the proposition that the universe had no distinct beginning, the Steady State theory. Singh effectively profiles the often-colorful scientists who took part in the controversy, especially as the story moves closer to the present. He also gives belated credit to several figures slighted by the scientific establishment. (Among them, Alpher and Hoyle almost certainly deserved Nobel prizes.) The onlydisappointment comes in the final pages, where such key issues as post-Big Bang inflation are skimmed over a bit too quickly in the summing-up. Still, a clear, lively, and comprehensive view of the way science arrived at the leading theory of how everything began. Author tour. Agent: Patrick Walsh/Conville & Walsh
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780007162208
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 1/4/2005
  • Pages: 544
  • Sales rank: 414,534
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.61 (d)

Meet the Author

Simon Singh received his Ph.D. in particle physics from the University of Cambridge. A former BBC producer, he directed the BAFTA Award-winning documentary film Fermat's Last Theorem and wrote Fermat's Enigma, the best-selling book on the same subject. His best seller The Code Book was the basis for the BBC series The Science of Secrecy.

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Table of Contents

1 In the beginning 1
2 Theories of the universe 85
3 The great debate 165
4 Mavericks of the cosmos 265
5 The paradigm shift 357
Epilogue : what are the outstanding questions for the Big Bang model? 467
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First Chapter

Big Bang
The Origin of the Universe

Chapter One

In the Beginning

Our universe is dotted with over 100 billion galaxies, and each one contains roughly 100 billion stars. It is unclear how many planets are orbiting these stars, but it is certain that at least one of them has evolved life. In particular, there is a life form that has had the capacity and audacity to speculate about the origin of this vast universe.

Humans have been staring up into space for thousands of generations, but we are privileged to be part of the first generation who can claim to have a respectable, rational and coherent description for the creation and evolution of the universe.The Big Bang model offers an elegant explanation of the origin of everything we see in the night sky, making it one of the greatest achievements of the human intellect and spirit. It is the consequence of an insatiable curiosity, a fabulous imagination, acute observation and ruthless logic.

Even more wonderful is that the Big Bang model can be understood by everyone.When I first learned about the Big Bang as a teenager, I was astonished by its simplicity and beauty, and by the fact that it was built on principles which, to a very large extent, did not go beyond the physics I was already learning at school. Just as Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection is both fundamental and comprehensible to most intelligent people, the Big Bang model can be explained in terms that will make sense to non-specialists, without having to water down the key concepts within the theory.

But before encountering the earliest stirrings of the Big Bang model, it is necessary to lay some groundwork.The Big Bang model of the universe was developed over the last hundred years, and this was only possible because twentieth-century breakthroughs were built upon a foundation of astronomy constructed in previous centuries. In turn, these theories and observations of the sky were set within a scientific framework that had been assiduously crafted over two millennia. Going back even further, the scientific method as a path to objective truth about the material world could start to blossom only when the role of myths and folklore had begun to decline. All in all, the roots of the Big Bang model and the desire for a scientific theory of the universe can be traced right back to the decline of the ancient mythological view of the world.

From Giant Creators to Greek Philosophers

According to a Chinese creation myth that dates to 600 BC, Phan Ku the Giant Creator emerged from an egg and proceeded to create the world by using a chisel to carve valleys and mountains from the landscape. Next, he set the Sun, Moon and stars in the sky; he died as soon as these tasks were finished. The death of the Giant Creator was an essential part of the creation process, because fragments of his own body helped to complete the world. Phan Ku's skull formed the dome of sky, his flesh formed the soil, his bones became rocks and his blood created rivers and seas. The last of his breath forged the wind and clouds, while his sweat became rain. His hair fell to Earth, creating plant life, and the fleas that had lodged in his hair provided the basis for the human race. As our birth required the death of our creator, we were to be cursed with sorrow forever after.

In contrast, in the Icelandic epic myth Prose Edda creation started not with an egg, but within the Yawning Gap. This void separated the contrasting realms of Muspell and Niflheim, until one day the fiery, bright heat of Muspell melted the freezing snow and ice of Niflheim, and the moisture fell into the Yawning Gap, sparking life in the form of Imir, the giant. Only then could the creation of the world begin.

The Krachi people of Togo in West Africa speak of another giant, the vast blue god Wulbari, more familiar to us as the sky. There was a time when he lay just above the Earth, but a woman pounding grain with a long timber kept prodding and poking him until he raised himself above the nuisance. However,Wulbari was still within reach of humans, who used his belly as a towel and snatched bits of his blue body to add spice to their soup. Gradually, Wulbari moved higher and higher until the blue sky was out of reach, where it has remained ever since.

For the Yoruba, also of West Africa, Olorun was Owner of the Sky. When he looked down upon the lifeless marsh, he asked another divine being to take a snail shell down to the primeval Earth. The shell contained a pigeon, a hen and a tiny amount of soil. The soil was sprinkled on the marshes of the Earth, whereupon the hen and pigeon began scratching and picking at it, until the marsh became solid ground.To test the world, Olorun sent down the Chameleon, which turned from blue to brown as it moved from sky to land, signalling that the hen and pigeon had completed their task successfully.

Throughout the world, every culture has developed its own myths about the origin of the universe and how it was shaped. These creation myths differ magnificently, each reflecting the environment and society from which it originated. In Iceland, it is the volcanic and meteorological forces that form the backdrop to the birth of Imir, but according to the Yoruba of West Africa it is the familiar hen and pigeon that gave rise to solid land. Nevertheless, all these unique creation myths have some features in common. Whether it is the big, blue, bruised Wulbari or the dying giant of China, these myths inevitably invoke at least one supernatural being to play a crucial role in explaining the creation of the universe ...

Big Bang
The Origin of the Universe
. Copyright © by Simon Singh. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Reading Group Guide

Introduction

Albert Einstein once said: "The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible." Simon Singh believes geniuses like Einstein are not the only people able to grasp the physics that underlies the universe: so can we all. As well as explaining what the Big Bang Theory actually is, the book addresses why cosmologists believe that it is an accurate description of the origin of the universe. It also tells of the brilliant and eccentric scientists who struggled to understand creation and fought against the establishment idea of an eternal and unchanging cosmos.

Singh, renowned for making difficult ideas less difficult, is the perfect guide on this journey. With a narrative peppered with anecdotes and personal histories of those who have struggled to understand creation, Simon Singh has written the story of the most important theory ever.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why was the Sun-centered model of the Solar System initially rejected and then finally accepted?

  2. The author often cites examples of calculations that are grossly wrong, but then says that the important thing is that someone managed to find a way to calculate them. Why is it important to perform these calculations even if we still don't get the right answer?

  3. How did technological change during the Renaissance aid the new physicists?

  4. Why did many scientists claim that Hubble's original data failed to show that the universe was expanding?

  5. Lemaître was a deeply religious man. Do you think that this influenced his theories about the universe?

  6. Einstein once called the Cosmological Constant his biggest blunder. Why?

  7. How did the development of the telescope change the course of astronomy?

  8. Although science is a human activity, it tries to be objective. In what ways can subjectivity influence scientific conclusions?

  9. In the last few pages, the author discusses the problem of creation and how scientists are attempting to look beyond the Big Bang. How do the theories discussed get around the problem?

  10. Edward Pickering employed women at the Harvard College Observatory. Was he a liberal thinker or a pragmatist?

About the author

Simon Singh received his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Cambridge. A former BBC producer, he directed the Emmy-nominated Nova documentary film, The Proof, and wrote the bestselling book Fermat's Enigma on the same subject. He is also the author of The Code Book. He lives in London and lectures all over the world.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 5, 2011

    Still Reconsidering

    According to Alexander Green: in "Beyond Wealth", (page 231), who recommended the Singh book, "a highly readable book on the subject". Alas, I have not found that to be so as yet.

    Even though I was eagerly awaiting the book, I was not int he mood to slog. I will revisit it in the future, perhaps with a different mind set.

    zstonie.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 18, 2009

    A terrific book!

    I picked this up at my local B&N off the "Buy 2 get 1 free" shelf. What a great book it turned out to be! Not only is it a good explanation of the Big Bang theory, but it's a great overview of how science works now and throughout history. Insightful and educational, this book will hold your attention from start to finish. Highly recommended.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 3, 2005

    Interesting Funny Enlightening

    I haven't had a science class since 9th grade but I understood this book easily. There were lots of funny stories combined with amazing scientific discoveries. Those scientific observations of our world explain why the Big Bang theory is accepted as the most likely cause of the universe.

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