In the past, I have praised Simon Singh for the clarity and quality of his explanations, when it comes to matters scientific and mathematical. That capacity is on display once more in Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe. The book provides a good introduction to the history of cosmology, from the ancient world to the recent past. The book covers the contributions of figures like Keppler, Copernicus, Galileo , Newton, and Einstein. It also provides good information and anecdotes on those who actually provided the data that validated the theories. The book provides a good basic description of relativity (both special and general), though those seeking a better understanding would be better served by the first half of Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe, which contains the best explanations of relativity and quantum mechanics I have encountered.
One thing it should lay to rest is the false and pernicious belief that it was only the European crossing of the Atlantic that led to the general belief that the Earth is spherical. Not only did the ancient Greeks know this by 300 BCE, they knew the size of the planet, the size of the moon and the distance to it, and the size of the sun and distance to it. All this from trigonometry and logical reasoning, starting with Eratosthenes. It also does a good job of explaining the ways in which now discredited theories stood up to scientific scrutiny at the time. It was only with refinement that the heliocentric view of the solar system had more predictive power than Ptolemy’s geocentric model, for instance. Similarly, the debate between Big Bang and Steady State theorists could only be resolved through the improvement of both theoretical positions and empirical measurements. The book touches upon some of the key ideas of Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which could be an excellent thing to read as a more technical follow-up.
For me, this book lacked some of the excitement of The Code Book and Fermat’s Last Theorem, but I think this was almost entirely because I already knew most of what is in it: from Grecian planet measurement to the detection of cosmic microwave background radiation. For those less familiar with our evolving knowledge about the origin of our universe, this is an extremely clear and accessible introduction. To those unfamiliar with the origin of the stars, galaxies, and elements that make up our universe, this book is a great place to start.