What it all means

The Origins of the Universe for Dummies

Ian Brooks 8 June 2008

Stellar: a useful resource for the curious

For the majority of us, pretty pictures and ubiquitous reruns of Star Trek are about as close as we come to understanding our universe

I can clearly remember the first time I saw the Milky Way. I mean, really saw it. I’d noticed it before while vacationing with my parents in rural Yorkshire, a wisp of starlight like a cloud trapped in moonlight. I remember being impressed, or at least as impressed as a surly teenager stuck in the Dales with his parents for a week can be. But the first time I saw our galaxy in its full glory was driving across the Texas panhandle a few years ago. I had reached a crossroads in my life and decided that the best way to determine which direction to head in was to take some time off work and embark on the kind of road trip my heroes had taken before me. Sometimes it was more Kerouac than Steinbeck, but it was nevertheless the quintessential American road trip.

I was somewhere between Amarillo and Oklahoma City on I40, a thick brown scar cutting across the belly of the nation. The sun had set and the landscape around me, an unending sea of featureless desert and scrub, had disappeared, swallowed by a thick darkness that pressed in on the windows of the car. I stopped, switched off the headlamps and walked off the road. Above me an infinity of stars receded to the limits of imagination. The foreground of familiar constellations was blazing atop a shimmering highway of starlight. Only once before have I been rendered breathless at the realization of my own infinitesimal place within the majesty of the universe. In April 1997, my band and I had traveled to the Scots border to watch comet Hale-Bopp glide overhead. As we entered a forest clearing and looked up we suddenly seemed very small and foolish, and our bottle of vodka for the toast, oddly sacrilegious.

The cosmos has an almost spiritual appeal for all of us. Learning in high school that we are, to quote Stephen Hawking, “just a chemical scum on a moderate sized planet”, and that we orbit an average star on the edge of a typical galaxy makes one crave for more understanding of our place within the universe. Surely we have to be more important than that?

The Hubble Telescope will be credited with giving us a feeling of personal connection to our universe. In particular, two of Hubble’s images stick with me. One is the ‘Pillars of Creation’, a massive nebula many light years across, its twisted and billowing innards glowing with newborn stars. The other is perhaps less epic in appearance, but to me, at least, far more evocative and powerful: the so-called Hubble Deep Field, which stretches quite literally to the edges of infinity. What appears to be thousands of stars glowing in that infinite blackness are in fact thousands of galaxies. Even at the edges of space and time, there are still countless stars, born billions of years before ours and dead for billions more. Their light has been traveling endlessly through an eternity of darkness, waiting for an eye to capture it and grant its long dead source some measure of acknowledgement in this cold and amoral cosmos.

Unfortunately, for the great majority of us, these sorts of pretty pictures and ubiquitous reruns of Star Trek are about as close as we come to understanding our universe. I’m sure I’m like many people reading this; the sheer mathematical impenetrability of physics and astronomy feels simply overwhelming. To (mis)quote Hawking again, in his introduction to A Brief History of Time: “My agent warned me that each equation in my book would cost me half my readers. To that half I say E=mc².” Well, I would add, Stephen, that this attrition could also be due to the following 250,000 words of impenetrable prose, so thick with fact and science that I honestly started to black out after the introduction. I did once manage Isaac Asimov’s The Universe, but that was written in the 1970s and so is just a touch out of date. So to those of us who fall into the “wannabe-astronomer” category, I strongly recommend picking up a copy of Stephen Pincock and Mark Frary’s excellent The Origins of the Universe for Dummies.

The ‘For Dummies” franchise is an extensive collection of guides and reference manuals to help everyday, non-specialists come to terms with pretty much anything you can think of. For example, in one trip to the bookstore you can learn about the origins of the universe, pick up a bit of Hebrew, learn how to play poker and then sell your house. All perhaps whilst building a webpage or optimizing a search engine.

Pincock and Frary do a stellar job of bringing the complexity and the long history of this field to the lay audience. Both authors are experienced science journalists and bring all their skills to bear on the subject at hand. With tight and often witty prose they render even the most challenging ideas and theories into something manageable. This is all accomplished without the reader feeling patronized. Instead, the relaxed touring atmosphere, and the book’s slightly irreverent tone, give the feeling of learning from a trusted guide, rather than being dragged along by a fact-infested lecturer. Of course, all of this will make the book appealing to younger readers too.

The book covers a vast amount of material in a very digestible way. We learn about the great, and not so great minds behind some of astronomy’s grand discoveries. The authors pay particular attention to the women who have made their mark in this field. Of course we learn about the origin of the universe, but we learn about how it might end. Or not, depending on who you ask. There are forays into the realm of atomic particles and their constituents, the nature of dark matter and how to classify a star. Proof of the existence of the cosmic microwave background, which by all rights should be known to every school child, has rightly been described as the most perfect experiment ever devised, and gets good coverage here. Simple line diagrams are plentiful throughout the text, and rather craftily, little icons warn you when it’s getting “too techie”. These sections, marked with a boffin-like character, can be skipped over without missing too much of the central story, another factor making the book a good read for your teenage kids once you’ve finished. The authors even make the bold step of including religion in their story. As they say, “we’re not implying that the religious beliefs and tribal folklore are…untrue. This…is simply a listing of ten ways of looking at the origins of the universe that differ from cosmologist’s views.” Bravo, I say.

Now, in the interests of full disclosure I have to admit that I was married to an astrophysicist so I’ve had quite a lot of informal schooling in astronomy. I’m proud to say that SWIFT, the satellite she helped design, build and launch is even mentioned in the book because of its discovery of over 200 black holes in our “local area”. However, despite her best efforts some areas of research remained beyond my grasp. And having read The Origins of the Universe for Dummies, I still haven’t got the faintest understanding of what string theory is all about. And I’m still confused about quarks, their flavors, spin and all the rest. And I still keep getting the two relativities mixed up. But I will say the authors gave it a very good try.