A historical overview of the science leading to acceptance of the Big Bang theory.
Former BBC producer Singh (Fermat’s Enigma, 1997; The Code Book, 1999) takes advantage of his sweeping subject to cover a wide swath of scientific history. After a glance at creation myths from around the world, he turns to the Greek philosophers, the first to base their speculations on actual data. Ptolemy’s system, with Earth at the center of a small universe, gave way to Copernicus’s Sun-centered scheme, bolstered by early telescopic observations and given a solid foundation by Newton’s gravitational law. Over the next two centuries, astronomers made it clear that the universe was both larger and older than had been believed. After Einstein refined Newtonian gravitation, the Russian mathematician Alexander Friedman found that Relativity implied an expanding universe. Astronomical observations—notably by Edwin Hubble—soon provided confirmation. That led the Belgian priest and astronomer Georges Lemaitre to propose that the universe had grown from a single point at some time in the past: the germ of the Big Bang theory. In the early 1940s, Lemaitre’s speculation was fleshed out by George Gamow and his student Ralph Alpher; at the same time, the British astronomers Fred Hoyle and Thomas Gold entered the debate with the proposition that the universe had no distinct beginning, the Steady State theory. Singh effectively profiles the often-colorful scientists who took part in the controversy, especially as the story moves closer to the present. He also gives belated credit to several figures slighted by the scientific establishment. (Among them, Alpher and Hoyle almost certainly deserved Nobel prizes.) The only disappointment comes in the final pages, where such key issues as post–Big Bang inflation are skimmed over a bit too quickly in the summing-up.
Still, a clear, lively, and comprehensive view of the way science arrived at the leading theory of how everything began.