Author: Simon Singh
Publisher: Fourth Estate
I haven’t been able to make up my mind on popular science books. Some might say that popular science books have done a lot to bring science to the masses, while others may say that such literature dilutes and undermines the importance of science and might even cloud the understanding of the public at large. What I //can// say however is this: I’ve read two immensely popular science books relating to the origins of the Universe and I whole heartily recommend [[wp>Simon_Singh|Simon Singh's]] **The Big Bang** over [[wp>Stephen_hawking|Stephen Hawking's]] **A Brief History of Time** (henceforth refererred to as ABHOT)
Actually the statement above needs a slight correction. I think its fair to say that I could only //try// reading ABHOT. I’d like to stress that I’m not trying to beat down upon ABHOT in any way — its a //great// book. Just that its not for me. Probably I was too dumb to get the concepts or I just got bored or whatever, but the bottom line is that I never could finish the book, and I didn’t really learn a whole lot. But its been years since I’ve read it and assuming that my mental faculties have shown some incremental improvement over the years, perhaps I need to give ABHOT just one more shot. I really do want to enjoy that book.
Anyways, coming back to the point. This book was (surprisingly) recommended to me by one of the faculty in my group, so I was looking forward to it. I mean he’s a smart guy, so coming from him I already had lots of expectations from the book. I finally got around to buying it at Sydney airport on my flight back from Australia a few weeks back.
The book is an easy read, very enjoyable. Simon does a great job beginning the book. The descriptions of the ancients’ wisdom and cleverness in figuring out things like the weight of the earth and the distance to the sun are truly inspiring. These are things we have all read at some point of time, but we tend to forget or not pay attention to them. So when I was reading the book, a lot of it was very familiar, and precisely for that reason I could step back from the technical details and appreciate the beauty of ideas and the ingenuity of people.
I also really enjoyed the chapter on relativity. I first heard/read about relativity towards the end of high school, and we formally studied the theory at [[http://www.iitk.ac.in|IIT]]. But sadly at that time I never really understood or appreciated relativity for what it was. I knew and understood the equations, I could solve the problems, I found relativity a little intriguing but not enough to warrant more attention — my focus used to be on grades and surviving the semester. And so it was almost exhilarating to actually begin to appreciate a little bit of what the special and general theories of relativity are all about. Concepts like the //constant velocity of light relative to **ALL** observers// brought a smile to my face, because I appreciated the leap of creativity and faith required to even begin to think along those lines. And reading about the thought experiments Einstein conducted (he wrote the entire treatise on relativity without ever conducting a single experiment) made me admire his genious.
Of course, the book is not about relativity. Its a whole lot more than that. And I wasn’t just fascinated by Einstein, but a countless others who contributed towards the development of the Big Bang model. I’ve always been fascinated with space and theories of creation and even as a kid I used to wonder where the hell is the Universe expanding into?! And so it was just a good warm feeling to read the book, to see the story build and reveal itself.
Unfortunately, the Big Bang model is not a grand finale, its far from complete and a lot of questions and details remain to be answered. So does the ultimate question //What was before the Big Bang?// (which some argue is invalid, since there was no notion of time prior to the Big Bang). I found Singh’s writing deteriorating towards the end of the book. The material on nucleosynthesis or radio astronomy is not as crisp and lucid as the earlier chapters. Nevertheless, I now look forward to reading both //The Code Book// and //Fermat’s Last Theorem//.