I have made a horrible mistake.
I allowed Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe by Simon Singh to sit on my bookshelf for three and a half years, unread. After finally reading this thrilling, enlightening, and entertaining book, I now know that all these years I was missing something great. And holographic.
Combating anti-Big Bang bias
I was inspired to finally read Big Bang after reading Dick Teresi’s Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science—from the Babylonians to the Maya. That book examined so much ancient non-Western science that I hadn’t heard of, and I loved it—mostly. However, Teresi dedicates an entire chapter to his “skepticism” of the Big Bang which devolved into him likening inflation theory to unicorn manure. (I went in-depth into why this chapter had no place in the book in my review, but I’d rather not get into it again.)
I held out hope that maybe at the time that Teresi wrote Lost Discoveries, the Big Bang model wasn’t popular or fully accepted by the cosmology community? It turns out that my hope was unfounded. Lost Discoveries was published in 2002, and Big Bang in 2004. The model was pretty solidly established by that time. I only hope that Teresi read Big Bang after it came out.
When I started reading Big Bang, I was surprised that it seemed to have the opposite problems that Lost Discoveries did. Although Singh does not say his own personal cosmological opinions outright, it’s obvious that he accepts the Big Bang. However, I found it disappointing that Singh does not give ancient astronomers the credit that they deserve (and this was Teresi’s strong suit in his own book).
Combating Western and Greek bias
Big Bang is arranged as a fascinating story told in chronological order, and my only major issue with it was with Singh’s treatment of early astronomers. For example, his analyses of the ancients largely echo, and were probably sourced from, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. I love Cosmos, at least emotionally, if not academically. I’ve written in detail why Cosmos suffers from inaccuracy, Eurocentrism, and antitheism. The beginning of Singh’s book falls victim to these same failures.
Singh strongly implies that science can only take off when religious explanations of nature are abandoned.
All in all, the roots of the Big Bang model and the desire for a scientific theory of the universe can be traced right back to the decline of the ancient mythological view of the world.Simon Singh, Big Bang, p. 4
This makes sense practically, but I worry that it teeters on the edge of Western bias. Curious naturalists and Indigenous wisdom holders have studied our world for millennia, never considering removing their spirituality from their endeavors. Why would they? Science and religion were not at war. In fact, they were one and the same.
Singh knows that the traditional Saganian thinkers were not the very first, but he makes a point of rejecting the work of their predecessors.
The amazing achievements of Eratosthenes, Aristarchus and Anaxagorus illustrate the advances in scientific thinking that were taking place in ancient Greece, because their measurements of the universe relied on logic, mathematics, observation and measurement. But do the Greeks really deserve all the credit for laying the foundations of science? After all, what about the Babylonians, who were great practical astronomers, making thousands of detailed observations? It is generally agreed by philosophers and historians of science that the Babylonians were not true scientists, because they were still content with a universe guided by gods and explained with myths. In any case, collecting hundreds of measurements and listing endless stellar and planetary positions was trivial compared with genuine science, which has the glorious ambition of trying to explain such observations by understanding the underlying nature of the universe. . . .
If the Babylonians were not the first proto-scientists, then what about the Egyptians? . . . These, however, are examples of technology, not science. . . . In short, technology is all about making life (and death) more comfortable, while science is simply an effort to understand the world. Scientists are driven by curiosity, rather than comfort or utility.Simon Singh, Big Bang, pp. 17-19
I wrote in the margin, “Why not both?”
Combating anti-medieval bias
Later in the chapter, Singh would also dismiss the work of medieval natural philosophers Nicole d’Oresme and Nicolas of Cusa for not denouncing geocentrism sufficiently. He states that Copernicus was capable of this thanks to his courage to challenge the Greek cosmology that still reigned.
Singh also tells the story of Galileo, which is appropriate but could have been told with more nuance instead of its typical “Church Bad, Science Good” message. James Hannam’s book God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science refutes many of the modern myths that medieval science history has devolved into.
Big Bang gets five stars
I don’t want it to sound like I didn’t love Big Bang, because I did. (I gave it five stars on Goodreads.) As was the case in my book review of Emily Levesque’s The Last Stargazers, it always takes longer to explain what you didn’t like about something than what you did like. And what I liked in Big Bang was the following 400 pages!
At its core, Big Bang explained to me scientific concepts that I had long ago given up ever understanding. Meanwhile, Singh told the engaging story of how this model of the Universe was built upon dozens of calculations and observations over the course of a century.
Throughout my time learning why the Big Bang is the accepted cosmological model among scientists, there was one thing I’ve never been able to grasp. How is anyone able to figure this stuff out? How on Earth do we know how far away stars are and how fast they’re moving, let alone understand general relativity or what happened in the first five minutes?
Big Bang saves the day
This book ended my era of confusion, which is why I’m kicking myself for not having read it years ago. Singh explains plainly (and with plenty of diagrams) how we know what we know, who figured it out, and what previous work they built off of.
The way Singh tells it, no one had really touched Galileo’s 1610 concept of gravity until Newton in 1687, and after Newton, no one shook its foundation until Einstein in 1916. (My dates here are based on when they published their discoveries.)
Importantly, Singh does share the story of Albert Michelson and Edward Morley who together disproved the existence of an ether wind making up the Universe. Michelson and Morley were so disappointed to have their hypothesis proven wrong. But getting a definitive answer to the ether wind question, and not being held back by belief in this incorrect concept, was a great scientific discovery—the discovery that something didn’t exist. The story is a powerful testament to the magnificent ruthlessness of the scientific method.
The lack of an ether told Einstein that light does not objectively move at the speed of light but that it is instead relative to the observer. One thing led to another, and he uncovered the theory of special relatively, from which the theory of general relativity took shape over time with more and better observations and technology.
The cycle of scientific advancement
From here, the book works somewhat cyclically, but I honestly loved it. It exemplifies most importantly what science is and how it works, and it showcased the ‘eureka!’ moments, the disproven theories, the conflict, and surprisingly a lot of World War II stories. What we got in the end was a scientific theory not without its flaws but that anyone with a finger on the pulse of cosmology would know to be the absolute best explanation we have.
This was the cycle: Einstein’s theory accounted for everything but the expansion of the Universe. Alexander Friedmann and Georges Lemaître realizes that the expansion could be accounted for if the Universe began from a condensed state and thn expanded.
This theory had some holes, and over time scientists would theorize and predict something that they should be able to find if the Big Bang is true. Each and every time that thing would be proven to exist with experiments and observations. However, each time there was still usually something else that the model has to answer for. Rinse and repeat the cycle until the present day and probably beyond. The Big Bang model still has its quirks, but they are nothing compared to the gaping holes it entailed in the 1900s or those that the Steady State model still sadly boasts today.
Funnily, often in this book, a good chunk of which takes place in the 1940s, scientists know what they ought to find, but they are faced with the reality that their technology is just not strong enough to be able to find that. Like I said, World War II did play a huge role in many of the technological developments that led to confirmations of Big Bang predictions. Hopefully, this balanced out the fact that it pulled so many scientists away from their work to dedicate themselves to the war cause.
When America entered the Second World War, observational astronomy and the activities of the major observatories largely ground to a halt. . . .
The only senior figure to remain at Mount Wilson was Walter Baade, a German émigré who had joined the observatory’s staff in 1931. Despite a decade of living and working in America, he was still under suspicion and was forbidden to join any military research group. From Baade’s point of view, the situation was quite satisfactory because it looked as though he would have sole use of the prestigious 100-inch Hooker Telescope.
. . .
In fact, Baade soon realised that the RR Lyrae stars in Andromeda were beyond the reach of the 100-inch Hooker Telescope, so he had to satisfy himself with using the 100-inch instrument to do background work on these stars in the Milky Way in preparation for observations to be made with the 200-inch telescope, which would be completed as soon as the war was over.Simon Singh, Big Bang, pp. 373-374
Pros and cons
I want to include here a couple of pros and cons about Big Bang.
A con is that it does not include a true bibliography but rather a list of further reading. Thus, the book doesn’t contain any citations directly showing where Singh got any specific information, which was very frustrating. Ironically, the only other related book I know that does this is Sagan’s Cosmos, and we already know it is rife with misinformation. I sort of have to trust that Singh got his information correct. It falls into the category of “embraced, but tentatively,” in which I’ll accept something as true, knowing that it could be proved wrong with further information, and I have to be ready for that.
A pro is these beautiful handwritten summaries at the end of each chapter! The book was already impressively digestible, but on top of that, Singh finished each chapter with a page of notes akin to what you might jot to study for a final exam. I was really impressed with these.
If for some reason you have Simon Singh’s Big Bang sitting on your shelf unread like I did, this is your sign to read it! (And if you don’t have it, you can get it for under $5! Not sponsored, of course.) It’s a 493-page-thick book, and it looks daunting, but it’s not. I read it in only two weeks, whereas it took me three weeks to finish Killing the Black Body by Dorothy Roberts, which is only 312 pages.
The concepts are explained well, the cosmological characters are larger than life, and an understanding of the origins of the Universe will never again be out of reach. That is a feat worth celebrating, and this is a book worth reading.
One thought on “Book Review: Big Bang by Simon Singh”
Possible typo: Under “Combating anti-medieval bias”, should it be “geocentrism” the two Nics didn’t denounce enough?
He’s right to call out the distinction between making detailed observations, and synthesizing them into a theoretical system. Science, as we understand it, needs both.