A Story of the Creation

The Origins of the Future     by John Gribbin

xiv + 292 pp.,Yale University Press 2006  ....   reviewed by David P. Stern


    In the beginning... there was utter nothingness. Other dimensions might have existed, perhaps other universes (to be precise. the Bible states "in a beginning"). Maybe God, though it could be a very different God from than the one humans later envisioned. We just don't know and possibly, never will.

    And God said: "Let there be space!" And there was space. Space, not an empty void--for even when space appears empty, it can support propagating fields, even create virtual particles, though for very, very short intervals only.

    "And let there be time, making possible waves--electromagnetic and quantum--not to mention laws of Newton and Maxwell, years and leap seconds and the Hubble constant." Time which keeps everything from happening at once, starting at a definite instant, which Fred Hoyle flippantly named "The Big Bang." Such a starting point renders meaningless the question, "what happened before the Big Bang?" In this universe, there was no "before."

    "And in that space, place ample energy and matter, letting it expand with time," an expansion which so far has lasted about 14 billion years. Energy shaped by gravity, with nuclear forces and electromagnetism determining its smaller scales, and with other large-scale forces also present, forces we are only beginning to appreciate.

    ...And God said: "Let us create Man" That might have been the easier part. The harder one was to create a universe where life was at all possible, satisfying the "anthropic principle." If this is a universe where creatures like us can exist and observe, its laws must meet stringent conditions. It must be a universe where matter and antimatter are almost balanced, but not quite (lest they completely annihilate each other), one where quarks can combine to protons and neutrons, and these in turn create nuclei of carbon (not just hydrogen and helium), then nitrogen, oxygen and the rest, opening the way to proteins, DNA and life. Who knows how many sterile universes exist where some such condition or another is not met?

    Also, a universe which does not quickly collapse again, because its pull of gravity is opposed by forces not yet completely understood, and one smooth on large scales (as ensured by "dark matter" whose nature remains unclear) but grainy enough to let galaxies and stars form. If it all seems like a miracle--well, we are here, aren't we?

    ... And God said "Let man evolve, and let there be astronomers and physicists to puzzle out the mysteries of creation." Astronomers to observe distant galaxies, whose light grows redder with distance, microwaves from the "primordial fireball," and signatures of the curvature and flatness of space. Yet astronomers must rely on the transparency of space, which only appeared some hundreds of thousands of years after the Big Bang. They need physics to fill the gaps.

    So let there be great minds like Albert Einstein's, who puzzled out the behavior of gravity and space-time on a large scale, also providing the foundation to its effects in very dense matter, as in black holes and the earliest universe. And battalions of researchers to build particle accelerators of greater and greater power (and greater size), to observe conditions like those near the Big Bang. And theorists like Alan Guth and Peter Higgs, to make sense of such observations.

    And then God said, let there be John Gribbin, to try explain all this finely tuned complexity to the non-specialist reader. Not an easy task, either, especially if one has to avoid the mathematical, physical and astronomical nitty-gritty. If the reader finds much of this pretty heavy going, well, that is the nature of the beast (no, there will be no test at the end, and yes, a few judicious tables and diagrams could have helped).

    Perhaps Gribbin will not satisfy everyone with the job he has done, but it is amazing how well he pulls it off at all, especially since many pieces of the puzzle remain to be fitted. Certain areas are still indistinct, especially in the final chapters (which seem like condensations of separate books Gribbin had written)--as in a computer picture of limited resolution, whose pixels dissolve into colored squares. The first half is much clearer than the latter one, which has too much speculation. Maybe this is unavoidable when trying to include areas where sound information is still lacking, just to fulfil the promised coverage--from the start of the universe to its end. Do not be too surprised if future observations change the picture presented here!

    Still, this book will teach you a lot. Read it only if you are not satisfied with superficial descriptions, and if you are willing to read it slowly. If you do, you may be rewarded with understanding, because it stands head and shoulders above any non-technical book on cosmology I've seen. If you wish to visit the front-line trenches of science, John Gribbin may well be the best guide to take you there.

Return to listing of books

Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol)phy6.org .

Last updated 5 February 2007