How did the Universe begin? And how did it come to be the way it is now? Why do we think a ďbig bangĒ was involved? And what is the Big Bang theory? If youíve ever wondered about any of these things and would like a straightforward account of the basics, then Bang! The Complete History of the Universe could be for you.
Bang!ís authors have some celebrity status, which would usually put me off, since celebrity books tend to be sold on the authorís fame, not the bookís quality. However I can assure you that these guys know what theyíre talking about. Brian May, as the guitarist of the rock group Queen, is famous as a musician and composer. But he also has a PhD in astrophysics from Imperial College, London.
A book by Patrick Moore inspired Brian Mayís original interest in astronomy - and that of many others! Sir Patrick is Britainís best known astronomer, and has presented the BBC TV program The Sky at Night since 1957. Chris Lintott, an astrophysics researcher, has co-presented some of The Sky at Night programs and was one of the founders of the Galaxy Zoo citizen science project.
Having introduced the three astronomers who wrote the book, I now have to tell you that this is not really an astronomy book. Itís a book about cosmology, which is the science of the origin and development of the Universe. The book not only explains the Big Bang theory and how our current knowledge relates to it, but in the final two chapters it considers the possible futures of our Universe.
A scientific theory isnít a guess. Itís a well-developed idea that can explain the existing facts and, even more importantly, make predictions about what we donít yet know. The bookís preface compares the twentieth centuryís two major competing cosmological theories: the Steady State theory and the Big Bang theory. In the former, the Universe had always existed. It remained much the same over time, because as it expanded new matter was created. The second theory said time and space came into existence at the Big Bang, along with the radiation and matter from which our Universe developed.
Iíve always thought that the Steady State view was more congenial, but the predictions made from the Big Bang theory are supported by subsequent observation, and those of the Steady State theory are not. The book explains how the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation killed the Steady State theory.
The current understanding of cosmology is narrated in plain English and additionally, you get a glossary of technical terms. There is a good selection of supporting illustrations and photographs included. And with 13.7 billion years to cover in fewer than two hundred pages, a time line helps you follow the story.
The authors donít ignore the loose ends either. For example, what was there before the Big Bang? Well, the theory canít deal with this because time doesnít exist until the Big Bang. So what is dark matter then? We donít know, but itís affected by gravity. And what about dark energy? Um, we donít really know anything at all about that.
The somewhat ho-hum
I believe that pictures should illustrate or illuminate the text in some way. Even though I understand why publishers insert photos in bunches, I still find it annoying and unhelpful. But I admit that theyíre great pictures!
The book is about cosmology, but at the end there are a couple of oddments of sections that look as though someone just couldnít bear to leave them out. These are the sections on practical astronomy and brief biographies. They arenít bad and yet it seems a little bit ad hoc, especially in such a short book.
The target audience
The book is aimed at beginners and as such is somewhat more accessible than Hawkingís A Brief History of Time. However if you already have some background in the subject, you would probably find the treatment too simplistic. If you need a more detailed treatment that is still reader-friendly, I would recommend Simon Singhís Big Bang.
I donít think the book was written for children, but Iíd be willing to recommend it to any keen young reader aged 12 and above. Iím not undervaluing the book, by the way, just standing up for kids who are pretty smart when theyíre interested in something.
Brian May, Patrick Moore, & Chris Lintott, Bang!: The Complete History of the Universe, Carlton Books Ltd, London, 2009, ISBN 978-1847323361
NOTE: The copy of the book which I read for this review was borrowed from a friend.