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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Do you see what I hear?, 9 Feb 2004
Kurt Messick "FrKurt Messick" (London, SW1) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Echo of the Big Bang (Hardcover)
Michael Lemonick's 'Echo of the Big Bang' is a very interesting text that weaves some of the recent history and personality of science into one of the more interesting astrophysical discoveries of modern times.
The last chapter of the book is the one that those readers looking for the 'science' will want to read most, for it contains the summary of the findings of the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), launched in 2001. The probe collected data for over a year, looking for the signature of the Big Bang - the background radiation in the universe (Cosmic Microwave Background radiation, or CMB) that was variously discovered and misinterpreted until the 1960s. The probe's findings could be summaries in five key numbers:
1) the universe is 13.7 billion years old
2) Ordinary atoms make up 4.4 percent of the universe
3) Dark matter makes up a surprising 23 percent of matter in the universe
4) The Hubble constant (the rate of expansion per distance) is 71 kilometers per second per megaparsec (in other words, the further out, the fast the expansion)
5) Stars began 'turning on' in the universe 200 million years after the start, much earlier than expected
Okay, so these are fairly simple observations. What do they mean and why are they important?
Lemonick's book takes a longer view toward astrophysical cosmology (as opposed to the more philsophical and theological kinds) - this is a relatively new branch of one of the oldest sciences. Astronomy has been important since the earliest days of literate humanity, and possibly even precedes literacy - charting the stars for theological/religious/superstitious reasons as well as practical reasons (seasons, time keeping) have always been important. However, it has only been since the Enlightenment that major attention has been given to analysing the different components of the sky, and while broad-based interest in the constitution of the universe has been present in philosophical an intellectual history, it has only been since the twentieth century that science has taken on the task of explaining the large-scale structure of the universe. This has led to many fascinating turns, many of which have played out in the popular press, like the astronomic struggle between the Steady State theory and the Big Bang theory.
Lemonick recounts the various near-miss discoveries of the CMB radiation, particularly the various Bell Lab accounts, the various mis-diagnoses from observational astronomers around the world, and finally efforts from ground-based and satellite/above-atmosphere observations to lead to the inescapable conclusion that, whatever it was, there was something out there creating fairly general and stable readings on various instrumentation.
The greater part of the text deals with the formation of the latest mission, which led to the discoveries listed above. Detailing the planning, the formation of the team of researchers, the budgetary issues, the set-backs due to changing NASA priorities and fortunes, and the personality quirks and conflicts that inevitably arise in projects, this is a fascinating glimpse of the human side of the scientific enterprise. The formation of how scientists even decide what to look for and how to look for it is interesting in and of itself; sometimes the scientific process doesn't seem so, well, scientific. How could it be, being run by scientists who are first human beings?
Lemonick also shows some of the aftermath of the discoveries (still a bit new at the time of the writing of this text, or of this review) - he references John Horgan's assertion that all the important discoveries of science have been made; I cannot help but think here of similar statements being made at the end of the nineteenth century, when active speculation about closing patent offices existed as 'everything that can be invented already has been'; history has a sense of irony in that it was a patent clerk (Einstein) who would prove this to be an example of classical physic's hubris. But Lemonick explains the emphasis in astronomy is already shifting; more headlines are made from discovering possible planets around neighbouring stars than grand theoretical constructs or larger-scale explanations. Where science really goes next, in the next decade, is a mystery; much more so is the direction for the next century and beyond.
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Echo of the Big Bang
Echo of the Big Bang by Michael D. Lemonick (Paperback - 24 April 2005)
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