Books by John Gribbin

John Gribbin is the author of books including In Search of Schrodinger's Cat, Stardust, Science: A History, and Origins: Our Place in Hubble's Universe (published by Overlook). Trained as an astrophysicist at Cambridge University, he is currently Visiting

Released: Oct. 24, 2017

"There is no chance that the authors will knock Newton off his pedestal, but they present a well-documented argument that he owed more to the ideas of others than he admitted."
The story of Robert Hooke (1635-1703) and Edmond Halley (1656-1742) and an exploration of "how science might have developed if Isaac Newton had never lived." Read full book review >
Released: Sept. 6, 2016

"Walter Isaacson goes deeper into his life and Dennis Overbye into his work, but readers will find this shorter biography entirely satisfactory."
A prolific British science writer examines the creation of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. Read full book review >
Released: March 8, 2016

"An exciting chronicle of a monumental scientific accomplishment by a scientist who participated in the measuring of the age of the universe."
Astrophysicist Gribbin (Erwin Schrodinger and the Quantum Revolution, 2013, etc.) clearly explains how the accidental discovery of "the cosmic microwave background radiation" in the mid-1960s led to the assignment of a definitive date for the origin of the universe.Read full book review >
Released: Dec. 20, 2011

"Within most readers' lifetimes, astronomers will possess technology to detect water, oxygen and tolerable temperatures around extra-solar planets. Predictions of scientific discoveries have a poor success rate, so readers should keep their hopes up as they enjoy this thought-provoking history of the universe and the prerequisites of life."
The British astrophysicist and prolific science writer presents a skillful, contrarian examination of the possibility of intelligent life beyond Earth. Read full book review >
FLOWER HUNTERS by Mary Gribbin
Released: June 1, 2008

"Occasionally staid but erudite portraits of heroic botanists."
Sharp, vest-pocket sketches of a dozen intrepid plant collectors by the veteran popular-science team (Annus Mirabilis: 1905, Albert Einstein, and the Theory of Relativity, 2005, etc.). Read full book review >
Released: April 5, 2007

"Full of interesting detail and anecdotage, a warm and readable history of a key era in science."
How England's Royal Society was born from, and continued to foster, the groundbreaking innovations of scientists. Read full book review >
Released: Aug. 23, 2005

Bobbing along in the wake of Roger Highfield's Science of Harry Potter (2002), this less-wide-ranging commentary uses select ideas and gadgets from Pullman's epic as springboards for discussions of Newtonian and quantum physics, dark matter, magnetism, multiple universes, chaos theory and a few other topics on science's frontiers. Though the Gribbins tuck in frequent references to the novels—pairing Schrödinger's Cat to a nameless one in Subtle Knife, for instance—and even open each chapter with relevant passages, their focus is less on the stories, or on critiquing Pullman's grasp of science (which turns out to be a pretty firm one, as Pullman himself points out in his introduction), than in showing how modern researchers are winkling out the universe's "hidden truths," a bit at a time. The authors' implication of a link between the quantum "entanglement" of photons and Jung's Collective Unconscious is a bit of a stretch, but the buoyant prose and coherent, non-technical explanations will keep readers on board for the entire trip. (Nonfiction. 12+)Read full book review >
Released: Nov. 1, 2003

"A thoroughly readable survey of scientific history, spiced by a brilliant and memorable cast of characters."
Five hundred years of science and scientists, by astronomer turned prolific popular-science writer Gribbin (The Birth of Time, 2000, etc.). Read full book review >
Released: April 1, 2000

"Close attention is required, but the fascinating story Gribbin has to tell is worth the effort."
How old is the universe? The answer (and the story of how the answer was determined) is the subject of this demanding but not overwhelming account of astronomers at work. Read full book review >
Released: Sept. 1, 1999

Gribbin, assisted by his occasional co-author Mary, tops himself with this one-volume summary of the current state of scientific knowledge. Author of numerous science books for the layperson (The Search for Superstrings, Symmetry, and the Theory of Everything, 1999), Gribbin steps back to show the broad perspective of what science knows about the universe, from the subatomic level up. After stating the central principle of science ("If it disagrees with experiment it is wrong"), Gribbin begins with the concept of atoms and elements, which led to much of modern science. As useful as the atomic hypothesis was, it wasn—t until Einstein that it was widely accepted as a factual description of reality. By that point, there was a growing body of evidence that the atom itself was a complex entity, made of smaller particles. The activity of one of those particles—the electron—is responsible for all of chemistry. Thence Gribbin leads the discussion to organic chemistry, through the structure of DNA, and thus to genetics and evolution. In such small but closely connected steps, the discussion goes on to geology and the history of the Earth, to astronomy and stellar evolution, all the way to cosmology and the structure of the universe as a whole. Gribbin is quick to make connections among the various sciences he discusses: for example, the simple quantum mechanical reason for the vital fact that ice floats—without which life as we know it would certainly be impossible. He smoothly introduces anecdotes about the scientists responsible for various theories and discoveries, and draws usefully on everyday experience to illustrate his material. And while he provides sufficient detail to give the various subjects immediacy, his eye is always on the big picture—how the world fits together and what it means to each of us. A definitive treatment of the subject, clearly and elegantly written. If you're going to own just one general science book, you'd do well to make it this one. Read full book review >
Released: Jan. 5, 1999

Physics changes so rapidly that a new survey of its landmarks is necessary every few years; here's an update from a popular British science writer. The focus in this book (a spinoff from the author's earlier The Search for Black Holes) is the nature of matter. Our modern conception of matter dates from the realization roughly a century ago that the atom, in theory the tiniest particle of matter, was itself a compound entity. The discovery of radioactivity opened up a window to peer inside atoms, revealing some of the structural units (electrons, the nucleus) of which these "indivisible" atoms are made. Ernest Rutherford's "classical" picture of the atom as a small but solid nucleus surrounded by a whirling cloud of electrons, had taken shape by the 1920s. But this easily understood model was rapidly modified, as quantum theory began to blur the intuitive divisions between matter and energy. The number of subatomic particles also underwent a population explosion, leading to quantum chromodynamics, in which the ultimate divisions of matter are invisible quarks and gluons, from which other particles are built. But even this "standard model" fails to unite the various forces and particles into a coherent structure; thus the search for a Grand Unified Theory, the holy grail of modern physics. This takes us into the rarefied territory of supersymmetry, superstrings, and gauge theory in a ten-dimensional matrix. Gribbin gives the reader a good overview of the progress to date of this research, describing its key experiments and noting the contributions of various scientists, and making the theory itself as clear as possible for readers not prepared to tackle serious math. Perhaps in ten years' time the key questions will be answered—always assuming that some new discovery doesn't send everyone back to the starting line again. A clear and comprehensive popular treatment of the cutting edge of physics. Read full book review >
Released: Dec. 12, 1998

Here is a collection of cosmological exotica, from the shrinking sun to the weighing of empty space, written masterfully by Gribbin (co-author, Fire on Earth, 1996, etc.), a noted English cosmologist and award-winning writer of popular science. Gribbin, is a scientist with a rare talent for translating complicated facts, theories, and questions into the layperson's language. Here he recounts how astronomers and nonscientists alike were amazed by Jack Eddy's announcement in 1979 that the sun was shrinking and would disappear within 100,000 years. Everyone had taken it for granted that our sun was an archetypal "normal" star until it was discovered that it was losing weight by burning 4.5 million tons of mass every second ("a mere flea-bite" compared to its total mass). Gribbin thinks the sun is only in a temporary phase of contraction that must soon be reversed. Such pulsations, he posits, must have occurred regularly over the billions of years of its existence. Gribbin also tells a related and equally colorful story: what has become of the sun's missing neutrinos (the particles have no mass or electrical charge and travel through empty space or solid matter at the speed of light). He recounts the epic story of Ray Davis's experimental counting of neutrinos deep within the gold mines of South Dakota. Davis detected only one-third of the number predicted, suggesting a series of bizarre speculations about the sun, such as one about its nuclear activities being temporarily "turned off." Gribbin suggests that we may have to change many of our cherished theories about the universe. This is an example of science writing at its best: informative, witty, fun, and accessible, without sacrificing the complexities inherent in modem cosmology and particle physics. Read full book review >
Released: July 21, 1997

Another Feynman biography? Yes, and why not: Feynman may just be the most idiosyncratic, brilliant scientist America has ever produced, a man who enjoyed stage managing his public persona. The Gribbins, veteran popular-science writers (Fire on Earth: Doomsday, Dinosaurs, and Humankind, 1996), fall short of outright hagiography, but they make it clear that Feynman was "no ordinary genius." The most original contribution in their take on Feynman's life is in conveying the shape of the physicist's mind: From boyhood on, he truly had to do it himself—go back to first principles and prove theorems or demonstrate physical laws to be entirely convinced of their truth. If experiment did not bear out theory, then theory was out. Especially intriguing were his visualizations of particle interactions. These mental pictures led to the famous Feynman diagrams that have eased the study of quantum mechanics for several generations of physics students. Feynman's Nobel Prize was for his work in quantum electrodynamics, that is, for formulations of the equations that explain all interactions between light and matter. For the cognoscenti, Feynman's formulation gives rise to the notion of electron self-interaction involving the creation of "virtual" photons; this was key, the Gribbins aver, to setting the stage for the revolutionary Big Bang theory of the creation of the universe. The book unfolds in a series of chapters interweaving a narrative of the life (boyhood, university, the marriages, Los Alamos, Cornell, Caltech, etc.) with the hard stuff—the Ph.D. thesis, the Nobel work, and beyond. Readers may be advised to follow Feynman's own advice to his sister: Read until you don't understand, and then go back and reread until you do. If that fails, there is still plenty of human interest, humor, and even acknowledgment of failings here (Feynman thought English and philosophy were "dippy"). Flaws, yes, but still a fine diamond of a life, well polished by the Gribbin team. Read full book review >
Released: July 1, 1996

Here is an able summary of the growing body of evidence that Earth has sustained a number of collisions with various large objects from space. John Gribbin (In the Beginning, 1993, etc.) and his wife are a versatile British team of popular-science writers, and the story of asteroid collisions calls on their wide range of scientific knowledge. The discovery of high concentrations of the element iridium (rare on Earth, but common in meteors) in the geological strata marking the end of the Cretaceous Period led a team of chemists and geologists to the conclusion that a large meteor impact had occurred at that time, probably causing the death of the dinosaurs. This theory initially met with widespread skepticism, but the evidence for it has continued to accumulate. The authors summarize the Tunguska event, a probable meteor impact in Siberia in 1908, and another that took place in the same region in 1947. There have been a few spectacular near- misses—one fireball seen over Montana in 1972, another over the Pacific in 1994. Impact craters on the moon and other planets testify that over geological time spans these events are far from rare. And the collision of Comet Shoemaker-Levy with Jupiter made it abundantly clear how powerful such a collision would be. The volume of space around the Earth as well as beyond our solar system contains a large number of comets, meteors, and small asteroids. Large objects, the size of the dinosaur killer, seem to arrive with a periodicity on the order of 30 million years. The Gribbins also discuss the possibility of a periodic swarm of smaller objects every few thousand years, causing widespread damage and disrupting civilization. Finally, they discuss various plans being made to detect and possibly deflect an incoming object—concluding that such efforts are unlikely to be of value in the foreseeable future. A well-written and comprehensive discussion of a sobering but inevitably fascinating subject. Read full book review >
DARWIN by Michael White
Released: Dec. 1, 1995

Two well-known science writers turn their hands to a can't- lose proposition: a biography of the most important scientist of the century in which science came of age. This is the third collaborative biography by White and Gribbin (Einstein, 1994; Stephen Hawking, 1992). While this popular treatment doesn't compare either in scope or in scholarship with recent full-length biographies of its subject (notably Janet Browne's Charles Darwin, of which the first volume appeared earlier this year), it admirably fulfills the nonspecialist's needs. The authors concentrate on the ways in which Darwin's career led to On the Origin of Species, and they make a special effort to clarify the meaning of his theory of evolution by natural selection. As a result, they waste little time describing Darwin's early life, cutting quickly to the voyage of the Beagle, on which he made many of the discoveries that gave him a solid reputation as a scientist and which inspired his research into the question of evolution. On the same principle, the authors give a comprehensive picture of those who developed the precursors to evolutionary theory (including Darwin's grandfather Erasmus); and their account of subsequent scientific research supporting Darwin's theory will be of more value to most readers than a detailed description of the events of Darwin's later life. He spent his last years in the quiet setting of his Kentish home, concerned more with uncontroversial biological research (e.g., on orchids and earthworms) than with the defense of his theory, which he left to more combative figures such as Thomas Huxley. And, sad to say, he spent much of that time backing away from the implications of his theory in the face of incomplete knowledge—a series of gaps that later researchers triumphantly filled in. A solid and quite readable introduction to Darwin for the reader interested in his major contribution to our understanding of the world: the theory of evolution. Read full book review >
EINSTEIN by Michael White
Released: March 22, 1994

The same team that brought you Stephen Hawking: A life in Science has decided to defend Albert Einstein against assorted revisionist treatments. Principal among Einstein's critics are those who say Einstein's first wife, Mileva Maric, is not given credit for her contributions to special relativity theory and that, in general, she had a rough time. (Their illegitimate daughter was placed for adoption and subsequently lost to history; Einstein's mother loathed Mileva for her peasant origins, etc.) Since the authors find nothing good to say about her, quoting sources describing her as unattractive, distrustful, and noting that she never did get her degree, they can hardly be credited with unbiased views. On the other hand, they are prepared to say that Einstein himself may have suffered schizophrenia—following a notion of psychiatrist Anthony Storr that seems off the wall. Be that as it may, they do manage to bring off a colorful description of the life for which the adjective peripatetic hardly suffices. Poor Maleva and the later-born sons followed along, making do and making Poppa as comfortable as possible. The chapters interleave the life with popular accounts of the major work, underscoring the papers produced in 1905, the "annus mirabilus," that launched Einstein's reputation. The paper on the photelectric effect earned Einstein the Nobel in 1922—proceeds of which he had agreed years before to give to Maleva after their divorce. In due course, we meet the physicists and astronomers who would later verify the accuracy of general relativity by measuring the bending of starlight near the sun during an eclipse. Following Einstein's rejection of quantum theory in the 1920's, the authors trace the personal eclipse of Einstein's creative career and ascent to the role of elder statesman and charming Princeton eccentric. Certainly some new and interesting details here, and accurate, acessible explanations of theory. But please, Einstein's life needs no apology! Read full book review >
Released: Aug. 2, 1993

Not only is there another universe next door, but myriad others across the eons of time and space: That's one conclusion voiced here by this former Stephen Hawking student and popularizer of astronomy (Unveiling the Edge of Time, 1992, etc.). Taking his inspiration from the findings of the COBE (cosmic background explorer) satellite, Gribbin launches happily into discourse on how we now know that the Big Bang happened 15 billion years ago (more or less)—and that the slight differences in background temperature that COBE has detected establish the "ripples in time" that allowed the clumping of matter into galaxies and supergalaxies. Which fits the idea of the universe inflating in the first split second. That said, what else is new? A lot. Never one merely to report the news, Gribbin speculates that the universe is truly alive and that it has evolved subject to the same restraints and random events observed in life on Earth. Mutations in black holes. Small blips on a parent universe becoming baby bubble universes. Eventually, a whoosh that becomes the universe around us. Does anyone else agree? Gribbin alludes to Lee Smolin, at Syracuse University, who's published a few papers. Otherwise, the author tells us that he got the idea by applying Gaian theories about Earth to the universe at large. Incidentally, he dispatches anthropic principles and the unseen hand by invoking a "Goldilocks" principle: The universe does what is "just right" for it (just as Gaia does on Earth). By this reasoning, human beings are a byproduct—and not too useful a one at that. As usual, Gribbin does a snappy reprise of the relevant theories and history before the whoosh and wow take over. Read full book review >
Released: Oct. 1, 1992

The first half of this latest from prolific English science- writer Gribbin (Cosmic Coincidences, 1989, etc.) is a nice reprise of special and general relativity, complete with credit to some early scientists who thought about dark and dense matter centuries before black holes were named. We learn that 18th-century clergyman and scientist John Michell figured out that a star the size of our solar system and with the same density as the sun would have an escape velocity greater than the speed of light and hence would be invisible. And that in 1801, a German astronomer, Johann von Soldner, surmised that light passing near a star would be bent by gravity and that there might even be a massive body at the center of the Milky Way. The second half of the book is something else again. Here, Gribbin is having fun: Having built a strong case for the existence of black holes, big and little and in between, he goes on to speculate how variations on this theme could lead to time reversal and time travel; give new impetus to "inflationary" theories and the concept of an oscillating universe; and suggest that the Big Bang may be quantized on a Planck scale. Will readers also have fun? Only if they are enamored of science fiction or are followers of those who practice astrophysical cosmology and like to speculate- -Hawking, Sagan, Penrose, Gribbin himself. For these freethinking folk, this is a book that rejoices in paradoxes and delights in reporting that nothing bizarre—baby universes, bubble universes, universe-sized black holes, energy extraction and time travel through wormholes—is denied by the laws of physics. Read full book review >
Released: June 5, 1992

White (Director of Science Studies/d'Overbroeck's College, Oxford) and Gribbin (Cosmic Coincidences, 1989, etc.) have produced a definitive biography of arguably the best-known cosmologist in the world. Stephen Hawking's accomplishments as theoretician on the origin and destiny of the universe are forever linked in the public mind to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)—the degenerative neurological disease that is slowly destroying the nerve cells that control Hawking's movement. At age 50, the 90-pound scientist, long confined to a wheelchair, communicates through fingertip control of a computer program that allows him to compose sentences synthesized into speech (described as sounding like someone speaking Canadian English with a Hungarian accent). It was not always so. White and Gribbin describe the early, healthy years, with prep school selected by ambitious parents: physician father Frank, a tropical- medicine expert who was frequently absent in Africa, and Isobel, whose left-wing politics left their mark on her son. Hawking's school days were marked by friendship with a bright group who flirted with religion and ESP, and built a computer. He showed marked ineptitude in sports but marked aptitude in mathematics. The diagnosis of ALS and Hawking's first creative bursts in math and physics all but coincided in his early 20s, when he had already moved to Cambridge and gotten married. He has since moved from strength to strength in the formation of "singularity" theory, the wedding of quantum mechanics and general relativity, and the generation of black holes in myriad changing forms. There aren't many warts in this bio, save for some comments on a colleague whose career Hawking almost destroyed, and a marriage in ruin: Hawking now lives with a new nurse/caretaker—the wife of the expert who adapted Hawking's computer to his wheelchair. A fascinating story overall, with the added plus that White and Gribbin are able to translate Hawking's bestselling A Brief History of Time for those who bought the book but found it incomprehensible. Read full book review >
Released: Jan. 30, 1992

English astrophysicist-cum-science writer Gribbin (co-author, Cosmic Coincidences, 1989, etc.) and mathematical physicist Davies (Univ. of Adelaide, Australia; The Cosmic Blueprint, 1988, etc.) have collectively produced a couple of dozen popular books on the nature of the universe, churning them out as regularly as clockwork. Both are talented expositors with a passion to explain. But what can we expect from this latest version of micro and macro worlds? Not a lot of newness. Aficionados who are already titillated by parallel universes, multidimensional space, Schrîdinger's cat, black holes, and wormholes will meet the same concepts and cast of characters, with the same zealous prose pointing out how weird and wonderful it all is. As a matter of fact, the purpose of the book seems to be to persuade readers of what the team devoutly believes: Newtonian reductionism (the matter myth) is dead; long live the new paradigm. Well, reductionism in physics died a long time ago with the appearance of relativity, quantum mechanics, and uncertainty. As for the new paradigm, Davies and now Gribbin are plumping for a "self-organizing complexity"—a kind of interactive universe that raises the Gaia hypothesis to the nth power. Evidence for that is speculative and controversial. For the reader who might like to entertain this among other cosmological hypotheses, the setting out of one set of bizarre theories after another in a largely uncritical omnium-gatherum is more likely to engender skepticism than conviction. Read full book review >
Released: Aug. 15, 1989

Suddenly, anthropic cosmology—which speculates on the relationship between scientific law and human life—is all the rage. David Darling's Deep Time (reviewed above) takes a self-consciously lyrical look at the field; here, Gribbin (In Search of Schrodinger's Cat, 1984, etc.) and astronomer Rees opt for a more nuts-and-bolts approach. The coauthors scamper across much of the newest turf in astrophysics and particle physics. Their main concern is to identify the nature of the "dark matter" that permeates the universe, and whose gravitational pull keeps the cosmos "balanced on a knife edge between being open and closed." This search for dark matter leads into dizzying tours through "the geography of the universe"—quasars, gravity lenses, cosmic strings, et al.—and the microcosmic "particle zoo." Since dark matter "controls the structure and eventual fate of the Universe," it also creates conditions that favor human life. The authors note that other physical events—the precise balance between nuclear, electrical, and gravitational forces; the homogeneity of the universe—also seem eerily conducive to human life. Coincidence or design? These orthodox scientists plump for the former, positing a vast number of universes, one of which—our own—just by chance gave birth to us all. The aforementioned conclusion is the book's Achilles' heel—neither Gribbin nor Rees is an accomplished philosopher, and in constructing their views on human life, they lean heavily on the most recent (and quite possibly evanescent) theories. When they're writing about what they know, however, they can knock your socks off. A heady introduction to a complex subject. Read full book review >
SPACEWARPS by John Gribbin
Released: Nov. 11, 1983

English astrophysicist Gribbin (Timewarps, White Holes, etc.) proves once again that he is a lucid and fluent expositor to lay readers. But there is some sleight-of-hand here. In this volume, says Gribbin, he wants to dwell on the anomalies of space in an Einsteinian universe: matter disturbs the smooth flatness of the terrain, producing the gravity wells or warps predicted by general relativity theory. However, these are but foils that allow Gribbin to introduce those major distortions of space—wells that close in upon themselves: the black holes. Once they are encountered and possible candidates detailed, they provide a springboard by which to describe white dwarfs and other assemblages of compacted matter, along with the evolution of stars. The material covered, in the end, is much the standard fare we meet in other contemporary surveys of cosmology/astrophysics—including Gribbin's. A new wrinkle, possibly, is his idea that the present universe may be a black hole turned inside out. Whether or not the universe will continue to expand ad infinitum, or contract back to the ultimate singularity that was the Big Bang, becomes food for thought on the amount of mass in the universe. Some calculations suggest that perhaps 90 percent of the mass may be undetectable—black holes not near enough to perturb visible masses. Some authorities, Gribbin admits, find this an off-putting thought: astronomers, after all, like to think that their domain is investigatable. Apparently such conjectural invisibility does not daunt Gribbin (a theorist), nor one of his most admired contemporaries, Stephen Hawkins, who has spawned a theory of miniblack holes. As a variation on Gribbin's and other recent popularizations, the book is fine—just remember you may have read it elsewhere already. Read full book review >
Released: Sept. 27, 1982

Will the Greenhouse Effect offset the Milankovitch cooling Model? Readers who've followed Gribbin's climatological predictions from Forecasting, Famines and Freezes (1976) to What's Wrong with the Weather? (1979) and The Death of the Sun (1980) will find here much that's familiar—but also additional, contradictory factors to consider and new theories to evaluate. They'll again find, too, problems that defy analysis. In the book's first half, Gribbin discusses weather history, patterns, and predictions—taking into account such esoterica as negative feedback from the oceans, Hoyle's meteoric impact theory of the Ice Ages, solar flux and isolation, the geometry of the earth-sun system, atmospheric bomb testing, nitrous oxides, ozone, and man-made dust. Wisely, he avoids committing himself to any single theory, or set of theories, with one significant exception: the Milankovitch Model of Ice Age cycles—which shows that the weather of the last 50 years has been unusually warm and stable, and predicts another Ice Age in 4,000 years or less. The book's second half focuses, as guardedly, on the Greenhouse Effect. ("There may not be much of a problem there at all"—yet "there is still ample cause for concern.") In one camp are the computer-folk who build three-dimensional "General Circulation Models" that indicate dangerous warming trends (some 2.4° by 2025) from anthropogenic carbon dioxide; in the other camp, the empiricists who extrapolate from historical and other data and who predict minor warming (0.25 to 0.3°C). All these predictions, Gribbin notes, are hamstrung by our general ignorance (e.g., something is soaking up half the carbon dioxide man produces, but we have no idea what it is). And a prime factor in these calculations—fossil fuel consumption through 2025—is hotly debated by energy experts. As for the implications, the rich North would suffer from warming; the poor Third World would first undergo famine, then benefit; sea levels would rise; crop yields in the grain belt would drop; the cost of CO controls would be prohibitive. In the short run, however, colder, fluctuating weather will be the norm (MM over GE). The long-range outlook is anybody's guess. Dense in spots—but an invigorating exercise overall. Read full book review >
Released: Sept. 27, 1982

As Huxley was Darwin's "bulldog," so Gribbin and Cherfas have undertaken to bulldog the theories of Berkeley scientists Allan Wilson and Vincent Sarich—who've added a new twist to evolutionary studies by measuring the genetic distance between species. In 1967 they published a classic paper announcing that there was only a l percent difference between human DNA and the DNAs of gorilla and chimpanzee. (The three species are exceedingly close—as close as dogs and foxes, or horses and zebras.) What's more, Wilson and Sarich were able to date their molecular distance measurements, postulating that human and ape species shared a common ancestor as recently as 4(apple) billion years ago. According to the authors (both New Scientist staffers), the 1967 paper scandalized paleontologists who either dismissed it out of hand or advanced arguments that showed how little they understood the biochemical techniques and calculations involved. Thus, the need to champion the cause. Unfortunately, they do this in wearyingly repetitive detail, scoring paleontologists as prejudiced, smug, or beside themselves at the very thought that humankind only recently separated from the hairier animals. When they do provide some reasonably new information, they are proficient, enthusiastic expositors. But the facts are difficult to track down amid the noise. Read full book review >
FUTURE WORLDS by John Gribbin
Released: June 1, 1981

Humdrum futurology: science expositor Gribbin, in clear but rather hectoring tones, offers a personal interpretation of recent Science Policy Research Unit (Univ. of Sussex) computer models which attempt to show how we can overcome our current problems and usher in a global utopia. Focusing on war, food, energy, and raw materials, Gribbin seeks a happy medium between the "doomsters" (Club of Rome) and "boomstars" (Hudson Institute), and opts for a relatively high level of economic/technological growth coupled with a more equitable distribution of wealth. On the prospects for war, Gribbin sees disarmament as a necessary prelude to high growth, but he has few ideas on how to achieve it. On population and food, he goes with the "there's enough food, but it's wrongly distributed" set, and assumes that population will level off as the Third World becomes more developed and better fed. On energy, he favors a mix of off and coal, sensibly used, along with developed solar, hydroelectric, wind, and geothermal power (he backs off on nuclear energy for the usual reasons). As for raw materials, a recycling-and-make-do-with-less approach will see us through, he thinks. And he offers three political models by which rich nations might acceptably aid poor ones. In paying minimal attention to pollution, environmental degradation, water resources, and cities, he is generally less balanced and readable than Barbara Ward, and he disparages Herman Kahn—whose revised views are broadly similar to Gribbin's own. Gribbin, then, has nothing much new or startling to say, and adds statistics and diagrams enough to bore even a computer. So it's dull fare—likely to disappoint even steady Gribbin readers. Read full book review >
Released: March 1, 1981

Gribbin is a knowledgeable scientist (with a degree in astrophysics from Cambridge) and a competent expositor (with several popular books on astronomy behind him)—as well as ambitious and optimistic, as anyone attempting a one-volume history of man and the universe would have to be. So it's not surprising to find that the first chapters surveying the grand sweep of the cosmos from Big Bang to our present solar system are commendable in level and content. We learn what happened in the first few seconds following the cosmic fireball (acknowledging such excellent sources as Steven Weinberg's The First Three Minutes). And in general we intuit that it is slight perturbations, singularities, ratios of particular elements (such as hydrogen to helium) which make all the difference in the evolution of galaxies, of star populations, and of that particular stellar dust cloud that condensed to form our middling-sized, middling-bright sun and the family of planets. Gribbin is good at discussing the elementary, laws of chemistry and physics that underlie the microevents that lead to the formation of chemical compounds or to the layered structure of Earth and its atmosphere. But when it comes to the origin and evolution of life, Gribbin is less satisfying. Though he is highly informed (even to the latest speculations on the death of dinosaurs), personal bias and the need to condense lead to a deceptively simple logic and the embracing of games theory models like the "selfish" gene survival theory of Dawkins and others. Since Gribbin has earlier plumped heartily for the Hoyle-Wickramasinghe theory of life-seeding molecules in the heart of comets, we know we are in speculative realms. And toward the end we see more such hopeful enthusiasm as Gribbin opines that intelligence may carry the day, hold back the ice age, create more equitable conditions on earth, and so on. It's his hope, too, that the universe will turn out to be closed so that we can expect a succession of collapses and Big Bangs. Ultimately, then, a book that pleases for many things the author does well, but one to be tempered by dipping into other sources for other points of view. Read full book review >
THE DEATH OF THE SUN by John Gribbin
Released: March 3, 1980

Gribbin, a glib expositor of things astronomical, dons his speculative robes to predict some cold turns for the earth and the sun in the coming decades. Half the text is an up-to-date summary of solar and earth history. Here are familiar accounts of distance/mass/temperature relationships which support life on earth but hardly elsewhere in the solar system. The sun's position as a medium-sized star, and its fate compared with larger or smaller sisters, is also developed along conventional lines. What's new and different is the second half of the text. Here Gribbin counters orthodoxy with assertions that constancy and regularity are not characteristic of our sun—or anybody else's for that matter. For reasons known or unknown, the sun is perturbed, and may be generating 10% less heat at its core. The evidence is somewhat arcane. Gribbin relates it to the absence of certain species of neutrinos detectable in deep caves and to the varied complexities and rhythms of sunspot activity and solar flares. To make matters worse, the sun's "off-colorness" seems to render it more vulnerable to further disturbances—for example, by gravitational pulls exerted by the larger planets in certain alignments, All this can lead to sunquakes and maybe earthquakes and glacial chills. Gribbin is quick to acknowledge the taint of astrology when one introduces planetary alignments into astronomical arguments, and he is certainly opposed to horoscopes as such. What he does defend is his right to challenge conventional wisdom which—for no reason—has for long supported reason and order in the sun. And, he asks, might there not also be a slight disorder in the galaxy as a whole? Lively and discussable—by pros as well as armchair astronomers. Read full book review >
TIMEWARPS by John Gribbin
Released: April 26, 1979

Time, not as the river flowing or the unidirectional arrow, is the theme of astrophysicist Gribbin's heady ventures into other universes, other lives. Is this a trend? Of a sudden it appears that physicists are becoming metaphysicists, seeking a marriage of East and West, discoursing on reincarnation, the paranormal, telepathy. Gribbin, no stranger to the more bizarre phenomena of contemporary astronomy and a good expositor of them (as in White Holes, 1977), is also a confirmed believer in precognition, the I Ching, Bridey Murphy, and the like. All could be explained by time travel—and not just travel in the future or in the past but sideways. Yes, reader, there is a wide-open universe next door—millions of them, in fact. What happens to you now in this universe may, in the next moment, find you in a lookalike but different universe parallel with this one. Thus, there is born an idea of branching universes in time and the potential that some minds may resonate with other minds in the past, present, or future. Perhaps in the train of Fred Hoyle's sci-fi classic The Black Cloud, we are all part of one vast Supermind or Superconsciousness. That would make the leap to telepathy or precognition less a quantum jump and more a simple Tuning into the Whole. All this heavy speculation is laced with allusions to contemporary astrophysics, the uncertainty principle, other quantum phenomena, and the work of sci-fi writers who, according to Gribbin, may have hit upon the seminal ideas that make time travel a plausibility if not a possibility. Anyway, it's all Down with Causality and up with the many-branched collective unconscious space-time multi-directional time flow. Fun to read if you suspend reason easily. Read full book review >
Released: Feb. 1, 1979

We can now say unequivocally that the warmest period of the present 'interglacial' is over. . . from here on we can expect a cooling off until within about 10,000 years the world will be in the grip of another full ice age." That firm note of conviction runs through Gribbin's cogent summary of the forces shaping earth's climate, and distinguishes it from the many "iffy" conjectures abounding. The arguments he summons are based both on old theories (Milankovich's ice age model) and on very recent data obtained from space probes, sedimentary analysis, statistical studies, and increasingly sensitive computer models. Excitingly, a new central dogma is emerging—that of a changing sun. It appears that the. sun's nuclear furnace may have "gone off the boil" so that the center is 10% cooler than it was, say, 10 million years ago. That, in combination with notable surface fluctuations—sunspot cycles, solar flares, "gusts" of solar wind—would go far to account for the ups and downs of earth's weather. In turn, periodic changes in the shape of earth's orbit, the angle of its tilt, and its constant "wobble" assure that the amount of heat reaching the surface will vary over latitude, season, and century. Thus it is an unstable sun interacting with an unstable earth (and both interacting with the movements of the other parts of the solar system) which ultimately shapes our weather. Not that man is not a factor. Gribbin, more conjectural here, feels that industrial pollution—dust, heat, the greenhouse effect, aerosols—may contribute a warming effect in the years ahead. He is also certain that political solutions must be sought to avoid crop shortages and famine. Subtle and sophisticated in flavor, Gribbin's account is to be commended not only for his emphasis on the astrophysics of climate (his field), but for his understanding of present political realities. Read full book review >
Released: Sept. 1, 1977

Will our galaxy turn into a quasar? Are quasars stages on the cosmic way to becoming galactic nuclei? Are quasars in fact white holes—"cosmic gushers"—compact objects powered by gravitation and spewing out clouds of material from their highly energetic cores? Astrophysicist Gribbin abounds with heady speculations and Lewis Carroll-like conundrums as he reports on present-day theorizing about the origins and destiny of the universe and about holes, white, black, and worm. He describes theory-spinning at this level of imperfect information as "entertainment"—but entertainment with the potential for substantial gains in understanding. The novice had better tread lightly here. Gribbin assumes reasonable familiarity with cosmological theories, relativity, and essential laws of physics. His frequent allusions to science fiction plots to illustrate points are a help, however, as well as a demonstration of his observation that science is even stranger than science fiction. An essay, "Is Our Sun a Normal Star," added as an appendix, is a little marvel of provocative suggestions, tease, and, yes, entertainment. Read full book review >