"This 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. 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)."--BOOK JACKET.
It was a review for me of an astronomy & cosmology class I'd had a dozen years ago, so it was fun to refresh and enhance the concepts. I especially appreciated the hand-drawn, two-page summaries at the end of each chapter.
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.
Singh's track record is 100% - every book by him has been an entertaining and informative one.
The sole minus for the book was its reliance on ancient history - giving more pages to recent discoveries and thus far unproven theories would have made it an even more enjoyable tome.
It seems to me that behind most good writers - and Singh certainly is that, with a clear and engaging style - is a good editor. Sadly, I think he was let down by his editor here, so that the balance of this book seems, to this interested lay reader at least, to be all wrong. As Singh himself admits in the 15 odd pages of "extras", he has found it difficult to decide what to put in and what to leave out. It shows.
Thus, we are treated to an exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) history of many of the important discoveries in astronomy and physics, from Eratosthenes to the COBE satellite, before we are even told just what the Big Bang model of the origin of the universe is.
I would have thought it would have been much more useful to the average reader to have started with the rather neat summary of the model on pp. 472 and 473 of the 23 page epilogue, which appears to be a paraphrase of the 1992 The Independent article announcing the findings of the COBE satellite providing evidence for the existence of the denser than average regions of the universe 300,000 years after the singularity of the Big Bang necessary for the formation of the first stars and galaxies after the first billion years.
From such an admirably clear statement, it would have been possible, in succeeding chapters, to set out the supporting evidence for the model in the form of clear and simple statements of the important theories and building blocks underpinning the model (eg., the special and general theories of relativity, the confirmation of multiple galaxies, spectroscopy, Hubble's Law, the structure of the atom, cosmic microwave background radiation, nucleosynthesis, and the abovementioned variations in density).
After a while I became slightly irritated by his sections beginning, for example: "It may seem like a long time since I have mentioned astrophysics but, ...". Whilst I quite liked the potted histories of the various personalities involved, I do feel that these add to the somewhat confused, and possibly confusing, nature of this book. For example, the beginner's introduction to the special theory of relativity has, in my view, been done better elsewhere, such as in Paul Davies' "About time".
In summary, if you want to know what the Big Bang model is, read pp. 472 and 473, followed by the two-page summary notes at the end of each chapter, or buy a different book. If you already know what the model is, and have the time for a discursive and personal history of the development of the theory and of the characters behind it, then buy this.
To me, the really great thing was all the details about the people and how they explored their ideas that I had not run across before reading this book. Additionally there were a wealth of quotes from scientists and non-scientists to introduce and illuminate the various sections.
Singh keep the tone light an simple. I found his style really engaging and illuminating. Science needs more writers like him to boost its popularity with the general public.
The summary notes at the end of each chapter are a brilliant idea and give you a moment to reflect on the key milestone one final time.
So it is with Simon Singh’s Big Bang. This is not a discussion of the details of Big Bang cosmology (although the Big Bang figures in the final chapters), but rather a history of the history of the universe, starting with miscellaneous mythologies through the Greeks to Archbishop Ussher to Einstein and eventually the Cosmic Microwave Background versus Fred Hoyle. Capsule biographies of the various participants are included, with a number of important ones I’d never heard of.
All of this is quite clearly explained; Singh is even brave enough to include graphs and equations in a book intended for a popular audience (I remember reading a claim somewhere that every graph, equation or footnote in a book cuts sales by 10%). For me, the single most impressive accomplishment of the book is the way Singh deals with usual lay questions (which, to my considerable embarrassment, often puzzled me):
What was going on before the Big Bang?
How can galaxies be moving away from us faster than the speed of light?
What’s outside the edge of the Universe that it’s expanding into?
By explaining that the Big Bang, despite the possibly unfortunate name, is not the explosion of matter into previously empty space which had been sitting around waiting for the event for some indeterminate time but the explosion of intimately linked matter and space and time. Thus “before” the Big Bang has no meaning – there was no time “before” the Big bang, time starts then; galaxies can be moving away from us faster than the speed of light because the Universe is expanding that fast (there is a limit to how fast matter can move through space, but there is no apparent limit to how fast space can expand); and there is no “edge” of the Universe because, heh, there isn’t anything else. (OK, I’ve heard that there are cosmological models where the question of what was there before the Big bang actually has some meaning. I’ll have to wait for another book.)