Alpha and Omega: The Search for the Beginning and the End of the Universe

  • Charles Seife
Viking Press: 2003. 304 pp. $24.99 Doubleday: 2003. £18.99
The collision of gold nuclei at almost the speed of light creates particles in conditions like those just after the Big Bang. Credit: BROOKHAVEN NATIONAL LABORATORY

The potentially lucrative market for popular cosmology is pretty crowded these days, so if a book is to be successful it has to stand out from its competitors. One strategy for a publisher is to sign up a professional scientist with something special to say. João Magueijo's Faster Than the Speed of Light (reviewed in Nature 422, 563–564; 2003) and Janna Levin's How the Universe Got its Spots (Weidenfeld & Nicolson/Princeton University Press, 2002) are two recent books, both written in distinctive, even quirky, styles by specialists for a lay audience. Although very different, these books have much in common. Both are insiders' views of the subject, both are highly original because the subject matter is seen from the perspective of the authors' own research, and both include a lot of autobiographical material.

Few scientists are capable of putting their understanding and experiences into words as effectively as these two, so publishers have instead enlisted professional writers to look at the subject from the outside. A science journalist may not have as deep an understanding of the technicalities as a research scientist, but may be more experienced at writing for the general public and consequently better at getting the basic ideas across. Particularly successful examples of this genre are The Whole Shebang by Timothy Ferris (Weidenfeld & Nicolson/Simon & Schuster, 1997) and, more recently, Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything (reviewed in Nature 424, 725; 2003), which both demonstrate that winners need not necessarily be on the inside track. Sadly, Alpha and Omega by Charles Seife is not among the medal positions.

The book starts promisingly enough, if you can forgive the pseudo-religious overtones of the title (a reference to the Book of Revelations). The suggested emphasis on both the beginning and the end seems a good idea, as there are many books about the birth of the Universe but relatively few about its death. Unfortunately, despite the claims made on the jacket, this theme isn't really taken up by the book itself, except for a few comments in the final chapter.

Instead we have a fairly conventional account of the historical development of cosmology from antiquity to modern times. This account is up-to-date, including such developments as the preliminary release of data from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe and the latest observations of distant supernovae, and is accompanied by some nice illustrations. It is, for the most part, quite well written, but there is too much repetition, some of the diagrams are incomprehensible, and the text is peppered with unnecessary and distracting footnotes.

There may be a place for footnotes in a scholarly monograph, but in a popular book they are usually signs of sloppy writing. If they say something important they should be incorporated into the text, otherwise the casual reader may miss something vital. If they are not essential, they should be left out for fear of muddying the water.

An example from this book relates to Arthur Eddington's eclipse expedition of 1919 to the West African island of Principe, where he made the first measurement of the deflection of light by the Sun, predicted by Einstein's general theory of relativity. Afterwards, Eddington wrote a poem containing the phrase “light has weight”. In a footnote, Seife claims that this is misleading because light “does not actually have mass”. In everyday language, mass and weight are more-or-less synonymous, but any high-school physics student knows that these terms have quite different meanings in the language of classical mechanics. Eddington knew the difference too. In newtonian language, weight is a measure of the gravitational force on a body. A massive body can be weightless, if it is in freefall or in a region without a gravitational field. On the other hand, in Einstein's theory, massless particles such as photons can feel the effects of gravity, so it is reasonable to describe them as having weight. No poetic licence is required, and I'm not sure Eddington possessed one anyway.

This may seem a pedantic objection, but my grumble is less about the fine distinction between the concepts of weight and mass as about the pointlessness of raising the issue in the first place. Besides, errors of fact are even less forgiveable than errors of judgement: the famous eclipse mentioned above happened on 29 May 1919, not 26 March, as stated by Seife.

I can offer a useful general tip about popular-science books: stop reading immediately when you come across the word 'mind- boggling'. This is the point where the author admits defeat, so it's only fair for the reader to do likewise. Applying that principle to this book will get you about half-way or, on a scale from alpha to omega, about as far as mu.