Big Bang: A Ladybird Book by Marcus Chown

The 'Big Bang' may be slim in volume but Marcus Chown manages to squeeze in 13+ billion years without reaching nuclear densities.

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I started reading Big Bang by Marcus Chown with my daughter, aged 7, having just finished Dara Ó Briain’s Beyond the Sky: You and the Universe. She had enjoyed Beyond the Sky so much that she’d asked for the sequel for Christmas. Well Chown's book wasn’t exactly a sequel but I had agreed to review it and it seemed a reasonable follow-up. Plus it wasn’t even Christmas yet. What could go wrong? Two pages later, my daughter bailed. 

To be fair, Big Bang is aimed at a non-expert adult readership, unlike Beyond the Sky, so I was perhaps pushing my luck in trying to entertain a child and pass it off as work. Unfortunately, the entertainment still needed to be done, so it took a while before I was able to finish reading the book on my own. Still, it did take a further two sittings to read another 21 pages of text. I wouldn't characterise the book as a page-turner, but then I do know how the story ends.

Chown’s pace is necessarily fast, as he has to cover 13.82 billion years, yet I didn’t feel rushed. He explains concepts really well and provides useful analogies, such as a ship emerging from the fog as a simile for the Universe becoming visible at 380,000 years when the first atoms were formed, locking away the electrons that had been scattering all the photons in an opaque Universe. Chown also mentions some of the key researchers and their stories of getting scooped (Bob Dicke) and of making surprise discoveries involving pigeon poo (Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson). These anecdotes help lift the scientists from the page.

In contrast, the surrealist illustrations did not always add to the narrative. A picture of roast duck legs and potatoes floating amidst balls of nitrogen and potassium ions accompanying an explanation of how the first elements were made, for example, was entirely superfluous (and inspired by a throwaway comment from George Gamow). I also failed to grasp the connection between a bar of chocolate and dark energy. Dark chocolate, perhaps? 

Ultimately, it is an entertaining and accessible book for people interested in the birth of the Universe, and Chown is careful to point out what we know versus what we guess might be. I especially liked the way he explained ‘bolt-ons’ to the standard theory—these being dark matter, dark energy and inflation—when observations forced scientists to rethink. That is exactly how science works.

For more reviews of the Ladybird Experts series by the editors of Nature Research, please click on the following link:

May Chiao

Chief Editor, Nature Astronomy

May started as a locum editor at Nature in 2003, and then joined the launch team of Nature Physics, handling a range of topics in the physical sciences. In 2016, she became Chief Editor of Nature Astronomy, which launched in 2017. May holds a physics degree from the University of British Columbia, and was a budding radio astronomer at the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics in Ottawa. She changed course as a PhD student at McGill University, where she specialised in superconductivity. For her postdoctoral work at the University of Cambridge and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich, she further branched into quantum matter under extreme temperature, pressure and magnetic fields. As an editor she enjoys learning new things everyday.

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