Customer Reviews: Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe
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VINE VOICEon March 24, 2006
Simon Singh is an adept popular science writer. His first significant book was Fermat's Enigma which was an entertaining and informative chronicle of the solution to Fermat's Last Theorem. Then there was the Code Book which provided a nice history of cryptography. Now, in Big Bang, Singh deals with one of the biggest questions of them all: how did the universe begin?

Actually, for astronomy junkies - those who've read books like Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe or Hawkings's Brief History of Time - Big Bang is probably a little tame and won't offer much new insight. Singh's audience is the general reader, one who may understand what the Big Bang is but not how the concept was arrived at.

Singh starts with the ancient Greeks and the origins of science. Soon enough, we read of Copernicus and his revolutionary idea that the Earth was not the center of the universe. Through Galileo, Kepler, Newton and others, the design of the universe kept changing, sometimes radically (geocentric to heliocentric) and sometimes more subtly (circular orbits to elliptical ones). Then things began to move beyond the solar system to look at the Milky Way: did it contain all the stars in the universe or were there other galaxies as well? The determination that there were many galaxies and that they seemed to mostly receding from each other led to a somewhat startling idea: if the galaxies are moving away from each other, they must have been closer in the past and at some point, they were all in one place.

The Big Bang theory would have its fair share of opposition, most notably from Fred Hoyle; ironically, it was Hoyle who wound up coming up with the term "Big Bang." The icing on the theoretical cake, however, would come with the discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background, an actual remnant from the Big Bang.

While superficially a book about the Big Bang, what Singh actually is writing about is how scientific thought develops, how new ideas arise from old. The Big Bang, like evolution, quantum theory or many other concepts, was not just a wild idea unsupported by facts; instead, it is the end result of a series of logical conclusions. In an era when scientific thought is often questioned (look at topics like global warming or evolution), Big Bang shows that - while not perfect - science is often the most reasonable source for answers about the fundamental nature of both the universe and ourselves.
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on January 15, 2005
With a PhD in particle physics and the easily digestible writing style, shared by his contemporaries Jon Krakauer and Nick Hornby, Simon Singh delivers once again. Having read and found "Fermat's Enigma" to be a thoroughly enjoyable and well researched book into the history of a seemingly simple equation (get that one too), I eagerly awaited the publication of this book. It makes for an excellent introduction into the world of cosmology. Singh relates the history of the subject from the early thinkers through to the current state of play - everyone from the "Cosmology Hall of Fame" is given a spot for their thoughts to be elucidated, how they affected the theories, how the modern folks are building on that knowledge, what questions remain unanswered, and what new questions are being promulgated. This is a worthy addition to the armchair and professional astronomer alike...worthy of a place alongside books by Hawking, Rees, Weinberg, Smoot and Gribben.
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Who first looked up at the night sky wondering about those specks of light? Whoever and wherever that was, the quest for an answer has endured. Simon Singh traces the results of that search in very human terms. From early creation myths through the orbiting of machines that view the universe in selected frequencies, he explains how our knowledge of the cosmos has built and changed over four long centuries. Using an effective conversational style, he demonstrates how the slow accumulation of knowledge built our picture of the universe. With clarity came distance in our growing perception of the age and scope of the cosmos. After nearly fifteen billion years, the universe has had much time to expand. Whether that will long continue is one of the points of this excellent story.

Arranging his topics carefully, Singh ties concepts to their investigators. Early ideas were based on "common sense" and accepted authorities. Naked eye observation limited our ability to "see" the universe until the telescope was developed. "Decentralising" is an ongoing theme in this book as we learn how Western Europe came to understand the Earth was not the centre of things. Galileo's telescopic observations shifted that centre to the sun. When telescopes improved even the sun's location moved to the edge of the Milky Way. Singh demonstrates how each step was proposed, considered and contested, then accepted with additional data. With hindsight, the conclusions all appear obvious. At the time of each new concept's proposal, "established" views held sway until overwhelming evidence displaced them.

No proposal was so hotly disputed as the notion that the cosmos began as a tiny region which rapidly expanded - the Big Bang. Although first proposed in different terms by a Belgian priest, Georges Lemaitre, the idea of explosive beginnings of the universe were generally dismissed. The supporting evidence was lacking and other considerations impaired its acceptance. Not the least of these was the religious connotations arising from the idea of a "creation point". In fact, the term "Big Bang" was a derisive term applied to the concept by one of its greatest critics, Fred Hoyle. Hoyle, with a shifting squad of supporters, proposed a "Steady State" universe in which matter was continuously being created and annihilated. Singh uses a handy set of comparison charts to show how evidence and the issues are balanced in the two theories. Bound to both theses was the question of the universe's age.

In the years following World War II, however, technology generated by that conflict provided researchers with a fresh, if previously used, tool kit. Radio telescopy, a true product of "war surplus" equipment, led to new discoveries. Of the many findings, the one most damaging to Hoyle's Steady State universe came from two scientists trying to reduce static in transcontinental telephone calls. Singh's description of Penzias and Wilson combatting the homing, nesting and excretory habits of a pair of pigeons is typical of his conversational style. It's also a paean to the dedicated researchers who persevered to complete their task. Coupled with radio telescopy was the improvement in spectroscopy - the chemistry of stars. Contributing new information on stellar age had the bizarre impact of clarifying and obscuring the duration of the universe's existence.

Understanding the history of our learning the structure of the universe is one thing - grasping the physics and chemistry is quite another. Singh's great talent is being able to convey both with equal facility and clarity. He knows how to summarize without losing meaning. The "sketches" concluding each chapter are visual summaries that might have been his composing notes. The bibliography is useful, but with the number of books on the topics, it reflects necessarily limited choices. There are countless books on the history and physics of cosmology. Is this one preferable to most? Is it more important than the others? The answer to both questions is a vehement, if qualified, "Yes!". To someone new to the topic, Singh has provided an informative welcome. Does he justify his subtitle? That remains questionable, but it's clear he's correct in asserting "you need to know about it". [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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Almost everyone has heard of "The Big Bang" and its claim that the Universe began with an "explosion" from an infinitesimally small point some fifteen billion years ago. It is one of those terms that everyone needs to know something about in order to be connected to the larger culture. You don't have to agree with it or believe, but you need to know about it. This book is a terrific way to gain an overview of the theory, its history, and its connection to the history of astronomy since Ptolemy and the earth centered universe.

"The Big Bang" is a terrific read because Simon Singh is an exceptionally talented writer who is able to open even arcane subjects for the general reader. He has a special gift for knowing just how much a subject needs to be simplified while leaving it just challenging enough to make the reader think a bit and puzzle things out in order to appreciate the intellectual change the new insight represents. Mr. Singh also humanizes the story by keeping the men and women who made these discoveries front and center.

It is the human rivalries, their mistakes, and their genius that attracts us and keeps us turning the pages to find out what happens next. And what a cast this book has. Just some of the big names are Ptolemy, Copernicus, Galileo, Brahe, Kepler, Newton, Hubble, Hoyle, and Einstein. There are dozens of important names I am not listing here simply because they aren't as well known as they deserve to be.

I love the story of how Eratosthenes made a pretty good calculation of the circumference of the earth using a stick, a well, some careful measurements, and trigonometry. Once that distance is known, figuring out the size and distance of the moon and the Sun are not that hard. Singh takes on a journey of expanding horizons, difficult intellectual puzzles, ever better observations, and hypotheses that get confirmed or drop away.

Fred Hoyle and his Steady State model is presented as a hero and a genius in this story. You can read the book to learn more about this model and its modifications. However, you should know that it was Hoyle who solved the problem of how the heavier elements are synthesized in stars. It involved an excited state of carbon that had more mass than regular carbon 12. Singh feels that Hoyle was shamefully treated in his later years and from what we read here it is easy to agree.

Singh informs us that proponents for a quasi-steady state model still exist. However, after COBE and WMAP have confirmed the variation in the background radiation that would indicate an uneven state in the early universe that allowed for the formation of galaxies and other structures, Singh says the current weight of evidence is strongly in favor of "The Big Bang".

This really is a fine book for the general reader. Unless you are already fully conversant in cosmology, this book can add to your knowledge and is a very enjoyable read.

I don't say this often, but I believe everyone should read this book.
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on January 26, 2005
This book is mis-titled; it does not delve into a chronology of the occurrence of the Big Bang event itself, as it is currently understood by scientists, but rather a historical overview of the scientific effort that resulted in the theory.

As a lay-person's introduction to the history of astronomy and cosmology, the book is fine, although a bit basic for my taste. For example, I've never studied physics or astronomy, but generally already knew much of the information on the Greeks, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Tycho Brahe, Einstein, etc. Those tired descriptions of special and general relativity, and the expanding universe as a balloon are wheeled out once again.

I was disappointed in the book because I enjoyed Fermat's Enigma and The Code Book so much. I had high expectations for this book to be more technical. For example, I felt that glowing testimonials on the process and value of the scientific method detracted from the focus and rigor of the book. As an example, we have an off-topic tangent on "paradigm shift" within the process of scientific progress. Perhaps Singh has dumbed-down the material too much. Quite patronizing were the chapter-ending "notebook" sketches which summarized points from each respective chapter. These only served to confirm that the book seemed targeted at a high-school level audience. For readers with little science background, the book should be accessible.

The formal chapters of this 2004 book abruptly end with the announcement of the COBE result in 1992; advances of the next 12 years are relegated to an Epilogue. Formalizing my disappointment was Figure 103, a reproduction of a 1992 newspaper article which provided me with perhaps more details of the sort I was hoping the book itself would contain. For example, the book has little or no mention of matter versus anti-matter, quarks, W+ W- Z particles, which are all shown in the clipping.

A glaring flaw is the absence of the mention of inflation, Big Crunch, type Ia supernovae, dark energy, and dark matter until the last few pages of this epilogue. Quite a trick for a 500 page book on its purported subject. Many of these topics have been known or debated for decades. For example, the recent WMAP refinement in the age of the universe is only mentioned in the caption to an image! This caption (Figure 104) raises several points which leave the reader wanting more details. Why was so much text spent on COBE when its results were superseded by WMAP, which gets only passing mention? One could be left with the idea that not much is going on in this field since 1992.

The book spends a lot of time building what I considered a straw-man argument about the steady-state universe versus the Big Bang. No serious scientist today doubts the latter, and I found Singh's approach tedious and inexplicably dated; a sort of preaching to the choir. As I waded through the very interesting but here belabored scientific advances of the 20th century, my overwhelming sense was, "get on with it."

As further evidence of the target audience level for this book, note that after the Epilogue, there is a short section, "What is Science" which declares, "This book is a history of the Big Bang Model, but at the same time it attempts to provide an insight into what science is and how it works." I wished I had read the first part of this statement before starting the book so I wouldn't have been expecting a play-by-play account of the Big Bang event, which is not satisfactorily provided here.

I quote from the Epilogue regarding current research in cosmology: "The rest of this epilogue [about 16 pages] is a brief dip into some of those still to be resolved issues and details. A few paragraphs cannot hope to convey the subtlety, depth and true significance of any of these problems." True, perhaps, but I thought that's what the whole book was for.
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on May 4, 2005
In recent years there has been a proliferation of cosmology books aimed at the broad reading public. Simon Singh's "Big Bang" is one of latest in this growing collection. In his latest work Singh discusses the development of the Big Bang theory in the latter part of the twentieth century.

Overall, I found Big Bang an enjoyable book. It is easy to read and clearly geared toward the non-scientist. Singh writes in a concise and non-technical manner yet is still able to effectively communicate key theoretical concepts. I offer a few thoughts on the book for prospective buyers:

The weakest part of the book is the opening chapter wherein the author attempts to summarize the full gambit of pre-twentieth century cosmological concepts. I appreciate Singh's attempt to provide this background information, however, the brevity of his summary resulted in a somewhat superficial and stereotypical discussion (e.g. relationship between the. church and science). Many of the issues touched on in this overview are interesting and important topics that warrant a more detailed and even-handed analysis.

Singh's discussion of modern cosmology and many of its leading personalities was particularly well down. From my perspective the book moved at a crisp pace and the author achieved the right balance of information and entertainment for an introductory-level book such as this. Singh is especially adept at conveying the excitement of cutting edge science - I would recommend it to high school students who are interested in science - its can be motivational as well as informative.

Singh also does a nice job of using the Big Bang theory to demonstrate the resistance that sometimes exists within the scientific community. Contrary to what outsiders may think, science and the scientific community are influenced by individual beliefs and ambitions. Singh notes that the scientific communities, like many other groups, can be rather hostile to those who challenge excepted dogma and slow to accept change. A good example of this type of dogmatism can be seen in the Darwinist response to recent questions regarding evolutionary theory.

Overall, good book, I recommend it to anyone seeking a popular level introduction to Big Bang cosmology. For readers seeking more detail regarding on-going developments in this fascinating area I suggest Ferris's "The Whole Shebang" and Seife's "Alpha and Omega".
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on April 1, 2005
This is a remarkably accessible book but caution is advised. The only reason for that is that this is not a purely scientific book. I would categorize this book at a science history book. The title of the book is a bit misleading although if you are not familiar with the Big Bang theory, this can be an excellent start because no one can actually write science history without describing the theories involved to at least some extent.

Singh has started the story with the Greek scientists, traversed thru the geocentric world view, Copernicus, Galileo and worked his way towards the modern theories of the universe in an excellent, cohesive manner. Extremely readable and immensely enjoyable. Scientific theories and personalities involved go hand in had thru out the book.

The theories, especially the theory of Big Bang are not discussed in-depth but I don't think that the author was even trying to do that. I think this book's audience is people who either don't know anything about these interesting cosmological theories or people who know a lot about these theories but might not know a whole lot about the personalities involved.

I had not read anything by Simon Singh before this book and the only reason I bought this book was that it was being offered on a huge discount in my local bookshop. After reading this, I realized that this book is worth every penny of the list price, let alone the bargain price that I had to pay for it.

The only somewhat boring part of the book was the one that dealt with the development of telescopes. Although important, I think Singh gave too much space to that section.
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on April 13, 2005
It seems there is a diverse discussion going on about Singh's latest book, here's my take on it.

Everyone loves his masterpiece Fermat's Enigma, and for good reasons; but Big Bang is as a matter of fact a very similar book. It is equally brilliantly researched, with the same fantastic style of making complex concepts tangible by painting a picture of the personalities and the historic events around the discoveries.

The only explanation that I can come up with why some people seem to not have enjoyed it that much is that most readers might have more general knowledge about astronomy or cosmology than about number theory. With me, it was the other way around; I knew most of the things in Fermat's Enigma, but I picked up some things reading the Big Bang.

The other criticism to Big Bang is that it doesn't touch the latest developments. But again, only natural, Singh doesn't write about speculations, he writes about commonly accepted facts. So he has to be well behind the current research. Besides that: Let him have some ground to cover for his next book!

My take on Big Bang is that it is a fantastic Encyclopedia (includes a great index) on how the theory about the beginning of the universe developed over the last several thousand years.

At the same time, it reads like a mixture of a suspension novel and a set of biographies of some very colorful personalities.

So if you expect dry scientific style, stay away from it. If you want to read a book that leads you just about as deep into the topics so that you don't have to read a single sentence twice in order to fully understand the concept, buy it now!
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on October 2, 2015
The Big Bang by Simon Sing is a guide to explaining why cosmologists believe that the Big Bang is an accurate description of the origin and evolution of the universe. It tells the story of the brilliant and eccentric scientists who fought against established ideas of an eternal and unchanging static universe.

From the early Greek cosmologists like Anaximander to recent satellite measurements taken from deep space, the book is full of anecdotes and personal histories. The author tells of mankind's centuries long attempt to understand how the universe came to be some 14 billion years ago. This is an easy to understand book that anyone can read and enjoy.

I detracted one star because the author did not provide any thought as to what the universe was like prior to the Big Bang or any speculation as to what might have occurred, even though there has been research and investigation in this area.
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on July 13, 2005
In general, I loved this book and it's historical approach to big bang theory. I am familiar with the basics of the big bang theory, but I really did not know much about how the theory developed (aside from Hubble's redshifted galaxy observations), and found the story of theory to be fascinating. This book is not meant to be a physics textbook, so if that's what you're looking for, you will be disappointed. It's just supposed to be a popular science book that tells where the big bang theory came from, and how it developed over the years, and in that regard, it does a fabulous job.

Singh does an excellent job of humanizing the scientists that were responsible for cosmological discoveries. He tells the tale of their lives, and gives you feeling that you actually know these great astronomers and theorists on a personal level. I also like his candid approach to explaining how the cultural climate (ie. religion, politics, war, the "establishment," etc.) effects scientific advancement.

"The Big Bang" is not without fault, however. One thing that is a little annoying about the book is that it leaves you with unanswered questions. For instance Singh does a great job of summarizing the Steady State Theory, but fails to explain how Steady State Theorists reconciled the idea of continuous creation with the Law of Conservation of Matter. It's easy to imagine that with the Big Bang a finite amount of matter/energy was created once and that evermore it must follow the Laws of Conservation. But with Steady State Theory, how can matter be continually created if matter cannot be created or destroyed according to the Law of Conservation of Matter? This paradox is not even addressed.

Furthermore, I was flabberghasted at how Singh acted like there was no longer controversy between science and religion. In his epilogue he states that "Even the Church has grown to love the Big Bang model." I don't know if things are so different in the UK that Singh is just not in touch with the culture here in the US, but nothing could be farther from the truth around here. Most Christians I know, unfortunately, believe in the literal, inerrant word of the bible, and find the Big Bang to be nothing short of heresy. In fact, being unfamiliar with the history behind BBT, I was shocked to learn that an ordained priest first proposed the theory and that it was considered by Steady Staters to be a theory to propogate God through science. The tables have quite decidedly turned completely, and I was disappointed that the controversy between creationism and bbt wasn't addressed more adequately. Perhaps fundamentalists would be more apt to accept science if their concerns about the bbt's compatibility with their beliefs were validated and addressed. Because they are not, Singh has limited his potential audience to those of us who are already unhampered by dogma.

And for that popular audience, "The Big Bang" is a great read if you want to know how it all began.
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