Whatever else survives of 20th-century civilisation, the modern account of the birth and growth of the universe will surely stand as a landmark in human thought. Every culture has its creation myth, but ours is the first that is in contact with real evidence at so many points. The details are so extraordinary that it is hard to know which is more amazing - the cosmos we inhabit or the fact that we have been able to piece together how it emerged.
The scale of things was just beginning to become apparent when the anonymous Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation offered the Victorians the first modern attempt at a complete natural history of the universe in 1844. As the author, later revealed as Robert Chambers, said of the wheeling of stars around the galaxy, "Motions of this kind, through such vast regions of space, must be long in producing any change sensible to the inhabitants of our planet, and it is not easy to grasp their general character". He didn't know the half of it.
Since Chambers, the universe has grown incomparably larger, older and stranger. We now contemplate events unfolding over 14 billion years, and recover signals from objects 12 billion light years away. Across those light years we see hundreds of billions of galaxies, each with as many stars. Yet our understanding of how all this vast structure evolved is tied tightly to theories of the interactions of matter and energy on the smallest scales imaginable. And those theories indicate that the visible universe could be just a tiny subregion of a cosmos that is inconceivably larger. The big bang, which we believe began our expanding universe, could have been one of an infinite number of such events, each conjuring up a subtly different rerun of the ultimate evolutionary story.
It is an extravagant vision, and perhaps a score of books appear every year trying to recount it in terms everyone can grasp. The prolific John Gribbin's new volume is a worthy addition. Although the basic outlines of the story are now familiar to many, the astrophysical details are constantly changing. His book is full of the latest thinking on such esoteric topics as the dark matter that makes up much of the mass of the galaxies, the even more mysterious dark energy, and on matters that would have seemed more familiar to Chambers, such as the origins of the solar system. It is a lot to squeeze into just over 200 pages of text. Packing in the ideas is helped by the decision to leave out most of the researchers testing them, even though the author visited many of them. The reason, he suggests, is that science is a collective enterprise these days, and individual contributions are hard to identify. It also avoids lots of organisational problems. Trying to relate up-to-the minute findings while also keeping track of which group did what is always taxing for the writer.
Having said that, it is not clear that the book is organised to best effect, and there are places where the details are hard to follow. The "biography" advertised in the title is a largely spurious conceit, and the text is organised around a series of questions - about the origin of the universe, of stars and galaxies, of planets and of life. The final chapter is a nice summary of suggestions about how it might all end, although a summary of the possibilities on offer that are likely to happen would be that at the moment we have no idea.
The difficult bits that crop up now and again are frustrating because when Gribbin sets out to explain something he is usually exceptionally clear.
His opening chapters review the standard model of particle physics (in 20 pages!) and the current state of theories of everything. This means that the hardest science comes up front, but they do an admirable job in the space. Later, though, it is disconcerting to find a book that begins by explaining that a neutron is "a component of a nucleus of an atom", taking other, less well-known facts almost for granted. The electron-volt is introduced as a unit that can be used to express energy, mass and temperature, but how these are all interconnected and relate to the density of the universe, which is also a key feature of the explanation at this point, does not get the step-by-step reprise that many, perhaps most, readers will need. Similarly, the fact that the redshift of the light from distant objects is a measure of how far back in time we are seeing them is not as intuitive as Gribbin seems to assume.
So this is not, perhaps, a book for beginners. They might do better with the more consistently user-friendly Bang! The Complete History of the Universe by Brian May, Patrick Moore and Chris Lintott, whose profuse illustrations and diagrams also make Gribbin's unadorned text look austere.
But for those who know the basics and want a comprehensive update, economically told, on the latest developments, this is an accurate and authoritative survey. Gribbin is meticulous at separating the well-established bits of the story from the more speculative - what we think we know from what we know we think. And he has a strong sense of how the whole thing hangs together to give, as he says, "a compelling, consistent and very nearly complete picture of how the physical world works and how the universe around us got to be the way it is".
Or, as Chambers put it in the more expansive language of the 19th century, the cosmologists' overall scheme for the evolution of our universe is now "supported by so many ascertained features of the celestial scenery, and by so many calculations of exact science, that it is impossible for a candid mind to refrain from giving it a cordial reception, if not to repose full reliance upon it, even without seeking for it support of any other kind."
Jon Turney is a visiting fellow in the department of science and technology studies at University College London and course leader for the MSc in creative non-fiction at Imperial College London.
The Universe: A Biography
Author - John Gribbin
Publisher - Allen Lane
Pages - 242
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 71399 857 1