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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
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Harold McGee
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Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
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The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
Big Bang: The Most Important Scientific Discovery of All Time and Why You Need to Know About It - Simon Singh An unbeatable offer: two reviews for the price of one! If you aren't interested in dull hairsplitting, scroll directly to the Infotainment Review below. But first, I'm afraid I must tediously present my

Scholarly review (fact-checked)

I'm conflicted about this book. There's plenty to love. As far as I can tell, Singh gets all the science right, and the fact that it's stuffed with entertaining stories about the historical characters involved makes it a fun read. I finished it in a couple of days. But how accurate are these stories? I am by no means an expert on the history of the Big Bang, but I have recently become interested in it and I've read several books. Last week, I read Kragh's Cosmology and Controversy. Given that Singh praises it as "probably the single best book on the Big Bang" and thanks Kragh for his help in writing his own book, I am puzzled to see a number of obvious inconsistencies.

Kragh comes across as an extremely careful scholar and Singh as an entertainer, so it's hard to believe that Singh is the one getting it right. For example, Kragh briefly mentions the tradition according to which the Steady State theory was born after its originators watched the 1945 movie Dead of Night, but warns that this is almost certainly a legend; Singh just presents it as fact, and spends a page describing the movie in great detail. Similarly, Kragh says that most people assume Gamow coined the word "ylem" to refer to the primordial matter from which the Universe was created, but that the word was first used by Gamow's collaborator Alpher; Singh says it was Gamow's invention.

The above are trivial matters, but then I don't know a great deal about Gamow or the Steady State group. One part of the story I do know fairly well, however, is the role played by Georges Lemaître, where I've read Lambert's two biographies, Un atome d'univers and L'itinéraire spirituel de Georges Lemaître. Lambert spent years of his life researching Lemaître and seems to have talked to just about every person still alive who knew him, so I'm inclined to trust his account. I've also Luminet's L'invention du Big Bang, which generally agrees with Lambert and Kragh and is also based on primary sources.

Well: with regard to Lemaître, widely claimed to be one of the three most important people in the Big Bang story, there are serious divergences between Singh's version and the ones I've seen in Lambert, Kragh and Luminet. Singh confuses Lemaître's 1927 paper, where he first suggested the idea of an expanding universe and his 1931 paper, where he named the hypothesis of the "primeval atom", and makes them sound like the same paper. They are in fact completely different, and were not even originally written in the same language. Singh doesn't mention that Lemaître's first paper presents experimental evidence in support of the expanding universe hypothesis, and calls it a purely theoretical paper. He says, correctly, that the original version of the paper was in French, but doesn't mention that the English translation had a crucial passage removed so as not to present the experimental evidence, which meanwhile had been independently presented by Hubble. (As Kragh points out, "Hubble's Law" should arguably have been called "Lemaître's Law"). Singh says that Lemaître wasn't very interested in the Cosmological Constant, whereas it was in fact crucial to all his work on cosmology and figures largely in the 1927 paper. Finally, Singh quotes Eddington as saying that he found the idea of the universe having a beginning in time as "repugnant", but makes it sound like this was a reaction to Lemaître's paper. Kragh and Lambert say it was the other way round: Lemaître wrote his 1931 paper as a reaction to Eddington's remark.

Okay... if you want infotainment, Singh is your man. He's a lot of fun, and you'll almost certainly learn something at the same time. But if you want serious history of science, go straight to Kragh. He's also fun, and it's just an all-round better piece of work.

Infotainment review (not fact-checked)

Simon Singh was born in Wellington, Somerset, where his mother, reputedly a former go-go dancer, was also keenly interested in popular science. At her son's bedtime, she used sing him poems from George Gamow's Mr. Tomkins in Wonderland to tunes of her own invention. According to family legend, Simon's first word was "neutron"! Perhaps as a result of Mrs. Singh's unorthodox choice of lullabies, he soon showed great promise in science himself.

At Imperial College, he eked out his meagre student grant by writing a science column in a local paper. Singh has always denied it, but it has been claimed that he also contributed to the royal gossip column when the regular journalist, a notorious alcoholic, was too inebriated to meet his deadline. Singh's pieces became more and more far-fetched, until one day the editor, shocked at the latest installment, asked him to justify it. Singh looked at him completely straight-faced. "Everyone says Paul Burrell's former hairdresser has an excellent parole officer," he replied. "Are you calling the woman a liar?" The editor laughed and ran the piece anyway.

It was no surprise to his friends when Singh chose to combine his talents by going into science journalism, where he rapidly made a name for himself. Big Bang is a typical example of his approach, and it is natural to compare it with Cosmology and Controversy, Helge Kragh's magisterial work on the same subject. First, the figure on the opposite page contrasts the two authors' relative popularity on Goodreads. We imagine two stacks of books, with one book for each person who has read the work in question. Kragh's stack contains only two books, but Singh's has 1,911, making a pile higher than St. Paul's Cathedral (111 m)!

But what about quality? Here, another analogy might be helpful. Suppose that we divide the floor area of the Albert Hall (4226 sq m) into two exactly equal halves. On the left side, we drop one empty crisp packet for every factual error in Kragh's book, and on the right side we drop one crisp packet for every mistake in Singh's. Now imagine that two janitors are given the task of collecting all the rubbish. They start simultaneously, at exactly 12 noon [continued page 94]