Big Bang

William S. Kowinski reviews Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe by Simon Singh, in the San Francisco Chronicle:

SinghDespite its title, this book is not about the Big Bang or the origin of the universe. It is a history of some of the major discoveries, theories, personalities and controversies that contributed to the basic Big Bang explanation and its present acceptance. It is essentially a textbook on cosmology in Western science from before Copernicus, and a conservative one (in a scientific sense) at that.

Simon Singh is best known for his TV documentary (“Proof”) and best- selling book (“Fermat’s Enigma”) about Andrew Wiles, who solved one of mathematics’ most celebrated mysteries. But the former BBC TV producer earned his Ph.D. in physics, so this book’s subject is clearly close to his heart. The subtextual through-line is the story of how science works, in the real world context of personalities, professional relationships and political, economic and religious interests. For instance, while the 15th century Catholic Church was notoriously resistant to the scripture-defying idea that the Earth wasn’t the still-point center of the universe, the 20th century Pope Pius XII became a booster of the Big Bang at a time when scientists weren’t so sure, because it posited a beginning and hence (he thought) a creation and creator.

But scientists themselves can be almost as influenced by their faith in their favored models, such as the Big Bang’s main rival for much of the 20th century, the Steady State theory (the universe without beginning or end). Several eminences held onto it because it was aesthetically pleasing and philosophically elegant. Perhaps the dirty little secret least familiar to nonscientists is the degree to which science is hostage to human failings of ego, status and reward.

More here.