Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Origins: the scientific story of creation - Jim Baggott ****

Every civilisation has its creation myths. These often beautiful stories describe how the world came into being and, most importantly in terms of the reason the stories exist, explore how we as humans relate to the wider universe. Jim Baggott, who is one of the few science writers able to make the Higgs boson comprehensible, has taken on an even greater challenge in writing a creation myth for the scientific age.
Origins is a weighty tome - literally. Oxford University Press either incorporate a chunk of heavy metal into the spine or (more likely) use a particularly heavyweight glossy paper in books like these, which mean that they are a positive drag for bedtime reading or posting, but look undoubtedly handsome. But what of the contents?
Baggott takes us chronologically from the origins of the universe, through the formation of stars and galaxies, on to the solar system coalescing and the Earth forming, through our planetary ages, bringing in the beginnings of life and the eventual evolution of homo sapiens. That's a whole lot of science to pack in. And because he almost entirely concentrates on current best theories, sticking to the chronology of 'creation' this does mean that he has to plunge in with heavyweight science from the start (general relativity is out of the way by page 20 or so), rather than easing us in gently with some history of science background to show the way the theories have developed over time.

It also means that there is limited opportunity for story, for narrative - and that the biggest drawback of this book. It's a creation myth without the backbone story, just leaving the bare bones of theory and observation, and it is diminished by that lack. Luckily, Baggott is too good a writer not to use as much friendly language as he can, and does throw in the limited stories behind some observation and discovery where appropriate - the Alpher, Bethe, Gamow paper springs to mind - but overall there is an impression of the reader being overwhelmed with a huge quantity of fact and theory. After all, in taking us from the Planck epoch to the present day, he not only has to encompass 13.8 billion years but also pretty well every bit of important science we now know.

Traditional creation myths were presented as fact, though they could be charmingly inconsistent. Genesis, for instance, contains two conflicting myths, while the Ancient Egyptians had a whole collection of incompatible variations, though this didn't really matter, because these were stories with a message, rather than an attempt at history or science. You might expect that a scientific creation myth would do away with such uncertainty, but though Baggott does present us primarily with the best accepted current theories, he points out that alternatives exist - and that there are some points, such as the very beginning of the universe, or the first instance of life, where it's still most honest to say 'We don't know.'

Overall this is a brave and impressive attempt at an almost impossible task. I have given Origins four stars because I think that Baggott has made an excellent stab at this, but the result is not a book that can have the inspirational storyline and narrative power of the very best popular science. It's just the nature of the beast.
Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

No comments:

Post a Comment