Time, Space, Stars and Man: The Story of the Big Bang

July 2, 2009

Time, Space, Stars and Man is a detailed introduction to our current understanding of the science of Life, the Universe and (almost) Everything. We are led from an explanation of the Big Bang, through the formation and development of stars and galaxies and then, nearer home, to the physics of the solar system and eventually to the beginnings and evolution of life on Earth.

In addition to explaining what we know about space-time, stars, galaxies and life, the author, Michael Woolfson, carefully describes how we acquired this knowledge. This requires the presentation of a very wide range of scientific topics, from techniques that allow us to measure astronomical distances, to nuclear processes responsible for the creation of heavier elements, and introductory genetics. To write such a wide-ranging book is an ambitious task indeed, and the result is a valuable source for readers wishing to gain knowledge and insights into key areas of fundamental science.

It is important to remember that the story being told in this book is unfinished, and indeed will never be finished. As fundamental scientific questions are answered, they in turn raise fresh puzzles that the current generation of research scientists are tackling with similar determination to legendary figures such as Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Francis Crick and James Watson, whose achievements and discoveries are described in the book. One such puzzle is the fact that the amount of matter we actually see in the universe is only a small fraction of that which we infer to be present from the rotational motion of galaxies and the stability of clusters of them. What this "dark matter" could be is a major area of joint investigation for particle physicists, astrophysicists and cosmologists, and the author discusses this at the start of the chapter on globular clusters and galaxies.

The breadth of topics covered in this book and the intellectual level at which they are discussed may make it a challenging read for many non-scientists. However, the dedicated reader who devotes some effort to contemplating its concepts and conclusions will be rewarded with insights into some of the most fundamental scientific issues today.

Many readers will wish to be selective, focusing on those topics that particularly catch their interest, and there are many exciting candidates: from a history of our knowledge of the solar system to the reasons why we know that the universe is expanding; from speculations of how life on Earth may have started to the creation, structure and importance of the Moon; and from the "clumping" of matter in the early Universe that created stars and galaxies to estimating the chance that the reader's children will have blue eyes.

Woolfson's desire to share his passion for science is very evident. The content is presented in a non-technical way, but the discussion and reasoning undoubtedly reflect a scientist's way of thinking. Although the author avoids using equations, some readers will need to recall their secondary school mathematics when, for example, they see a paragraph in the chapter on the Big Bang hypothesis labelled "From 10-12 to 10-10 Seconds", or when the author plots and interprets graphs, such as the one in the chapter "Survival of the Fittest" as part of the discussion of the evolution through 10,000 generations of the fraction of a species with a certain characteristic.

In the UK, young people are made to specialise at a relatively early stage of their education, and one consequence of this is that a significant fraction of the educated population has very little knowledge and appreciation of scientific ideas and methods. Time, Space, Stars and Man is an admirable contribution towards making them accessible to the interested reader. The material would also provide an excellent framework for science courses offered in (too small) a number of British universities in which non-scientists are encouraged to broaden their knowledge base by taking courses outside their primary discipline.

Time, Space, Stars and Man: The Story of the Big Bang

By Michael M. Woolfson. Imperial College Press. 436pp, £74.00 and £42.00. ISBN 97818481623 and 30. Published 19 March 2009.

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