Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe

Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe

by Simon Singh


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780007162215
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 11/01/2005
Series: P.S. Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 560
Sales rank: 357,858
Product dimensions: 7.98(w) x 5.30(h) x 1.40(d)

About 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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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.

What People are Saying About This

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.”

Reading Group Guide


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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Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe (P. S. Series) 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
kapustar More than 1 year ago
i wanted to find out more about the big bang theory and purchased simon singh;s book" Big bang".It is one of the most delightful books i have ever read.Mr. Singh went through a history of astronomy giving not only the significance of each discovery leading up to the big bang theory but he also gave a short bibliography of each astronomer who contributed to the theory.The bio's were almost as interesting as the facts on the big bang.To top it all off he explained scientific terms in laymen terms making it all understandable for us mere mortals.I was so fascinated by the book i finished it off in 3 days and its a fairly long book
carterchristian1 on LibraryThing 8 months ago
A great introduction to cosmology and astronomy. It is based in strong biographies, photographs not just of the heavens and of the participants themselves. The first sentence sets the theme of just how big the cosmos is. "Our un iverse is dotted with over 100 billion galaxies and each one contains roughly 100 billion stars. "While these numbers would have been beyond understanding before the big economic meltdown and the American debt we Americans are now starting to cope with the concept of "a trillion" and can deal with these numbers now.
mallinje on LibraryThing 8 months ago
A very thorough, detailed history of cosmology. Great introduction for those with an interest in cosmology and astrophysics.
parthbakshi on LibraryThing 8 months ago
I never expected a book on the origin of the universe to be so fluid in expressing the intent of the book ,i have previously read stephen hawkings "A brief History of time" which was filled with scientific gibberish ,but Big Bang had none of it ,maybe i might be exaggerating to some extent but Big bang is bang on target on what it really wants to depict . A good read for any one who is fascinated with idea of Universe.
dougwood57 on LibraryThing 11 months ago
For this reader with a lot formal education, but very little of it in the physical sciences, Simon Singh's `Big Bang' was phenomenally interesting, engaging, intellectually stimulating, readable, and educational. Others with more background in cosmology may find it too basic. Singh takes the reader through the history of cosmology as he builds toward an explanation of the Big Bang theory. The opening chapter explains the ancient's earth-centered (and common sensical) view of the universe and its downfall at the hands of Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler and Galileo. Later chapters follow the disproof of ether, Einstein's special and general theories of relativity, and the `great debate' between the supporters of a static universe and Lemaitre and others who supported the idea of an expanding (Big Bang) universe. A large portion of the book follows the scientific efforts to gather evidence to support one view or the other. The renowned Edwin Hubble and the less so Henrietta Leavitt played key roles in finally providing enough evidence supporting the Big Bang theory to at least make it a credible argument. The remainder of the book follows the debate between the solid state theorists led by Fred Hoyle and the Big Bang backers led first by Gamow and Alpher, but later by others who resolved some of the nagging doubts about the theory, for example, the crucial 1992 proof of tiny variations in cosmic microwave background radiation. Each chapter (at least in the P.S. version) has handy summary notes. Singh provides a useful glossary as well as recommended further readings for each chapter. I generally read 50-75 books a year and rate The Big Bang as one of my top five books of the year. Five measly stars don't do it justice. I will resist the temptation to rate as a supernova, but this book greatly enhanced my understanding of the world around us and was a joy to read. Absolutely the highest recommendation.
neurodrew on LibraryThing 11 months ago
I have read Singh¿s books on math before; he is a very good writer, and in this volume covers a historical review of the theories of the big bang and cosmology. He has a lot to say about the early years of the last century, writing about the ¿great debate¿ in 1921 between Harold Shapely and others over the issue of nebulae; were they in the milky way (the ¿via lactia¿ in Latin) or independent galaxies, and about the discoveries of Edwin Hubble on Mount Palomar with the 200 inch telescope. I will encourage Mike to read this book for background on astronomy.
smackfu on LibraryThing 11 months ago
Well written like all of Singh's books. Covers a lot more than the Big Bang, including most of modern astronomical physics. That's a good thing.
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PeterParker55 More than 1 year ago
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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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.
zstonie More than 1 year ago
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.