qatsi (qatsi) wrote,

Light reading - well, sort of ...

I describe my reading as "intermittent" and re-reading is therefore even rarer. I think I bought this book in my teens and read it then, but not since, which is a shame, since it plainly would have been worth reading for its qualitative insights during my undergraduate course.

Book Review: In Search of the Big Bang, by John Gribbin (1986 edition)
Gribbin is one of those well known "popular" science writers and has, over the years, produced many books whose subject matter is loosely described as "cosmology", as well as on other subjects. Stephen Hawking cited the observed inverse relationship between the number of equations in a book and its sales. Generally, Gribbin steers clear of the maths, all you really have to understand is what is a "very big" number and what is a "very small" number, though it is undoubtedly the case that someone with some mathematical knowledge of physics will gain more in some places.

The first few chapters give a historical perspective, realistically beginning with the eighteenth century and the philosophical musings of Thomas Wright and Immanuel Kant, and building up to Einstein's theories of relativity, and Hubble's discovery of the expansion of the Universe. The middle section describes the emergence of the Big Bang theory in the mid twentieth century, including the ideas of nucleosynthesis which were necessary to explain the energy radiated by stars; perhaps there could have been more discussion about the Steady-State theory which rivalled it until the observational discovery of the cosmic microwave background in the 1960s. Gribbin is fairly charitable to Fred Hoyle, while not disturbing the general picture of him as a rather blunt and embittered Yorkshireman who was mightily miffed to have backed the wrong horse.

The final section is a discussion of the "Holy Grail" of physics, Grand Unified Theories. To the layperson, it is perhaps not clear what this has to do with the Big Bang: the explanation is, the laws of physics "change" several times between 10-43 and 10-4 seconds after the Big Bang. Of course, to a physicist the laws do not really change: what happens is that the decreasing energy density causes certain symmetries to break, which ultimately results in the four forces of nature we know today. In my edition of the book, this section may be somewhat dated: it was written just a few years after "inflation" became popular and about the same time as Hawking described his "imaginary time" model of the Universe.

The biggest revelation on re-reading the book was its qualitative explanation of the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics. The first time I read the book, I must have just accepted it as fact. This time, I understand what Gribbin means when he talks about Fourier analysis, and suddenly the conclusion is startlingly obvious. Unfortunately, I imagine most readers fall into the former category.

It was well worth re-reading; also on my to-do list, Gribbin's companion volume In Search of Schrödinger's Cat, Hawking's A Brief History of Time, and Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe. Probably in that order, but not without some diversions in between, I think.
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