The Origins of Everything in 100 Pages (More or Less), by David Bercovici

Cait MacPhee on a gallop through the history of the universe, the planets, life on Earth and more

January 12, 2017
Dead dinosaur
Source: Alamy

Describing the origin of everything – the universe, the stars, planets, the Earth and life – is an enormous challenge. Doing it in just over 100 pages is asking for trouble. Can it be done? Unfortunately, it seems that the answer is no.

David Bercovici’s The Origins of Everything in 100 Pages (More or Less) is based on an undergraduate lecture course, and promises a sweeping view from the Big Bang to the present day while zipping along at a breathless pace. As a result, in some places it reads like an extended synopsis, or a series of condensed revision notes you’ve made for yourself in the run-up to an exam (you may be tested on this later). Subjects are touched on, but rarely in enough detail to be satisfying. For example, early in the formation of the universe, energy is described as expanding to lower density whereupon it condenses out matter, but condensation at lower densities seems odd. And the birth of the Dark Age of the universe is ascribed to light “escaping”, but given the finite nature of the universe, where does it escape to? Both are counterintuitive ideas that need quite a bit of unpacking. A good lecturer can bring such subjects to life in class, but on the page there’s not enough to convince, and I can imagine a student repeating it all back by rote, but without deep understanding.

Bercovici is a geophysicist, and in the chapters dealing with subjects closest to his disciplinary home I found more substance, focusing on the important parts and skipping appropriately over things that don’t aid understanding. Those sections (continents, oceans, climate) make up about half of the book. The origins of life are given about 15 pages, mainly describing what life is but also covering the major current theories of where it came from. Humans and civilisation are given 10 pages at the end – which seems fair enough, and possibly even excessive given the blip we represent in the vast span of time that the book aims to cover at a gallop. In contrast, the formation of stars and the elements, including hydrogen fusion, the triple-alpha process, the CNO reaction and neutron capture are zipped through in seven pages of information-rich text that I imagine might have novice readers gently tearing out their hair.

The tone of the book is quite chatty, and Bercovici is rather fond of parenthetical observations (as am I). Climate change is addressed pragmatically and without hyperbole, making the point that large swings in climate have happened before and the Earth will ultimately (probably) recover. It is living organisms that are forced to undergo dramatic adjustments on short timescales, with extinction often the outcome, whereas over geological spans the Earth will likely go back to business as usual. You may or may not find this comforting.

I wouldn’t recommend Bercovici’s short, sharp book as a light read, but it does make for an excellent synopsis for a lecture course of this type. Pointers are provided to both general and specific reading sources for more information so as to flesh out the detail. With all the blanks filled in, I’d imagine this would be a course that students would find inspirational.

Cait MacPhee is professor of biological physics, University of Edinburgh.

The Origins of Everything in 100 Pages (More or Less)
By David Bercovici
Yale University Press, 152pp, £12.99
ISBN 9780300215137
Published 11 November 2016

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Most Commented

Daniel Mitchell illustration (29 June 2017)

Academics who think they can do the work of professional staff better than professional staff themselves are not showing the kind of respect they expect from others

As the pay of BBC on-air talent is revealed, one academic comes clean about his salary

Senior academics at Teesside University put at risk of redundancy as summer break gets under way

Capsized woman and boat

Early career academics can be left to sink or swim when navigating the choppy waters of learning scholarly writing. Helen Sword says a more formal, communal approach can help everyone, especially women

Thorns and butterflies

Conditions that undermine the notion of scholarly vocation – relentless work, ubiquitous bureaucracy – can cause academics acute distress and spur them to quit, says Ruth Barcan