Bang up to date

Ian Farrell reviews 'The Origin of the Universe' by John D Barrow

WRITTEN FOR the educated layman, like the rest of Wiedenfeld & Nicolson’s Science Masters series, this is a lucid account of the latest knowledge - and speculations - of scientists about the origins of the universe.

In 1992 the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite was able to measure the immense heat of the tiny, incredibly dense fireball which constituted the universe in the earliest seconds of its known history, now spread out over the vastness of the 15 billion light-years-wide universe to give a background temperature of only 2.7 degrees above absolute zero.

Where Newton’s classical physics are accurate only for low velocity movements, Einstein’s relativity equations are only adequate where gravity is a force of attraction.

Now it seems repulsion - antigravity - may have been responsible for a short but very significant surge of extra-rapid expansion during the pre-chemical phase of microcosmic expansion. If the gravity of matter can be negative under certain conditions, this removes one of the essential conditions used by the mathematician Roger Penrose to prove the necessity of a “singularity”, a beginning to space and time, from which the expansion of matter emerged.

In the extraordinarily high temperatures, pressures and densities of matter a split second after “the apparent beginning that has become known as the big bang” (p5), electromagnetism and nuclear radiation emerged from a common source - the “electroweak force”. Now particle physicists are working to connect this with the two other fundamental forces of nature - the “strong nuclear force” (which binds the nucleus of an atom) and the force of gravity - in a “single unified theory” of everything.

John Barrow points out experimental facts of particle physics and cosmology right up to 1994. While informing us of the latest hypotheses, he maintains a healthy scepticism towards the speculations of imaginative mathematicians, some of whom have conjured up a universe of as many as 27 unknown dimensions - simply because they can multiply 27 factors together in complex formulae.

A fascinating read, and a recommendation for the other Science Masters titles already available: The Last Three Minutes by Paul Davies, and Richard Leaky’s The Origin of Humankind.

Ian Farrell