November 26, 2004

Where DO We Come From?


by Simon Singh

(Fourth Estate, Pounds 20)

ROLL UP for the greatest story ever told! At last, science describes the creation of the universe!

Well, not quite. On creation as most of us understand it, science is silent.

It has no better explanation of how a universe appears out of nothing than you or I, and scientists are just as likely to bring God into the story.

What science can describe, however, is what happened after energy, matter, time and space appeared in a mysterious cosmic event of unimaginable power and intensity billions of years ago.

And it is the search to understand this that Simon Singh describes in riveting detail.

It is an adventure story, and one of the great ones. Singh starts with the early Greek natural philosophers whose subtle investigations launched a whole new way of understanding the world.

Instead of looking at the heavens and making up fabulous stories (though the Greeks were pretty good at that, too) they began answering questions using theory and measurement. Is the Earth a sphere?

How far away are the Moon and the Sun? I was astonished to learn that, in 250BC, a genius called Eratosthenes estimated the Earth's circumference to an accuracy of about 2 per cent.

With the decline of Greek civilisation and the rise of Rome, science went into eclipse; Rome was more interested in power and administration. When the spirit of enquiry re-emerged 1,000 years later, the big question was 'Is the Sun or the Earth the centre of the Universe?' The main enemy of scientific enquiry then was the powerful Church, which did not want its dogma contradicted.

Scientists moved between royal patrons and often worked in passionate obscurity. Wonderful characters come to life. Perhaps most remarkable was Tycho Brahe, who lost his nose in a duel and had a brass one glued on, good enough to pass for real. His laboratory, built with royal funding, consumed more than 5 per cent of Denmark's GNP and was famous for its wild parties.

His pet elk died after falling downstairs while drunk.

Then came Galileo who shifted things up a gear by using the telescope, which gave him access to more - and more accurate - data.

Getting data is always a big problem for cosmologists.

The cosmos is remote and inaccessible; you cannot put the Sun in a test tube, do different things to it and watch what happens.

So cosmology relies on small-scale experiments here on earth, on patient measurementsof heavenly movementand on theories dreamed up in inspired human brains.

Using all of these, Galileo confirmed that the Earth revolves around the Sun. He was punished for his achievement by being put under indefinite house arrest; but this came as a relief, for some inquisitors were arguing he should be tortured and killed.

After many fascinating tales we come to the final question; is the universe eternal and self-sustaining or did it appear all-at- once, in a moment of creation?

Two conditions of Big Bang theory are that the Universe must have expanded since, and it must be full of very faint microwave radiation.

Now these are confirmed the theory is thought to be secure. Not that anything in science is eternally secure!

If you are intrigued by the story but wary of mathematics, do not worry; Simon Singh spares us most of the maths, and he juggles big ideas with tact and care.