Cosmology for Beginners
1) Felix Pirani and Christine Roche: The Universe for Beginners, Icon Books, 52 High Street, Trumpington, Cambridge CB2 2LS, UK, 1993, reprinted 1996, 174 pp., paperback, notes, references, glossary, biographical index, bibliography.
2) J. P. McEvoy and Oscar Zarate: Stephen Hawking for Beginners, Icon Books, 1995, 175 pp., paperback, bibliography.
Of these two books, I like the first one best. The author, a retired professor of rational mechanics in the University of London, begins his book by stating: "The Universe is everything that exists. Cosmology is the scientific study of the Universe" (p. 3). As far as Pirani is concerned, "the Universe is a physical system, not a creation of the gods. It was not designed by a Great Designer" (p. 4). Physical science cannot say anything about why the Universe was created or whether it has been created. Physical science limits itself to describing the structure and development of the Universe. The stars and the galaxies do not have any intentions and do not act "in order to bring about any result" (p. 5).
Both books are written in a simple and easily understandable language with a minimum of formulas. Technical terms are always explained. Both books contain historical passages dealing with earlier ideas about the Universe and bringing the story up-to-date. The books are profusely illustrated. In fact there is not a page without drawings, pictures, or diagrams. The books simply are like comics or funnies, and quite a lot of the information is formulated in an entertaining way.
Both books, of course, also mention the Big Bang theory. This is the idea that the Universe started its life a finite time ago in a single huge explosion and that the present expansion is a relic of the violence of this explosion. Pirani quotes the American astro-physicist James Peeble who has said: "The name, Big Bang, is unfortunate because it may be understood as referring to an event at a singular start of expansion of the Universe" (p. 55). A singularity is no physical entity. It can rather be compared with Kant's concept of Ding-an-sich which in no way has promoted physical research.
According to Pirani present-day physics has nothing to say about how the expansion started. There are mathematical models in which the Universe expands from an initial singularity But there "is no reason to suppose that this correctly represents the real Universe. In any case, current physical theory cannot deal with a "beginning". The earliest that the theory can deal with is a time at which the contents of the Universe were compressed to the so-called Planck density, around 1093 times the density of water" (p. 55). Pirani adds that when he uses "big bang" it means the time at which the Universe was in that state. He emphasizes: "There is no evidence for a beginning of the Universe, and no theory can deal with it adequately" (p. 55).
The main evidence for a Big Bang is the on-going expansion of the Universe and the cosmic microwave background radiation which Arno Penzias and Robert W. Wilson discovered in 1965. But there are difficulties. One of these is that 90% or more of the matter in the Universe is so-called dark matter, that is it is unseen. Nobody knows what it is. Current Big Bang theories, therefore, do not say anything about 90-99% of the matter in the Universe. Which is quite unsatisfactory, of course.
Still, most astro-physicists seem to accept some kind of a Big Bang theory. Those sceptical of the Big Bang theory do not have any alternative theory to offer. For many years the so-called steady-state theory was an alternative. But this theory was widely abandoned after the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation in 1965. Some astro-physicists have doubts about the extreme physical conditions ruling in the early" Universe. It is not known how these extreme conditions arose. The "early" Universe, may, of course be a misleading expression. If there always has been a Universe, which seems likely to me, the "early" Universe is only earlier than the Universe "now", that is the Universe as it is believed to be "now", as seen and discovered from the earth.
An astro-physicist who has expressed doubts about the Big Bang is Jean-Claude Pecker, professor at the prestigious College de France. Pecker is also a well-known atheistic humanist. For him the Universe is at least 15 billion years old, and speculation about what precedes this period belongs to metaphysics. It does not help, of course, to dress up metaphysics in an impressive mathematical language.
Another skeptic of the Big Bang is Halton Arp who has published the book Quasars, Redshifts and Controversies (Interstellar Media, Berkeley, CA 1987). Arp has denied a common view among astro-physicists, namely that the so-called quasars are the most distant objects in the Universe. According to Arp the enormous redshifts of the quasars do not arise from the expansion of the Universe, but rather are intrinsic properties of the quasars themselves. Arp is a recognized expert observer of quasars and galaxies and well-known for his studies of "peculiar galaxies".
We may here also mention a book by Eric Learner: The Big Bang Never Happened: A Startling Refutation of the Dominant Theory of the Origin of the Universe, NY 1991. I have not seen this book, but its title speaks volumes.
To return to the two entertaining books under review. They are part of a long list of books "For Beginners" dealing with many different topics. One of these is Ethics for Beginners by Dave Robinson and Chris Garratt, Icon Books 1996, 175 pp. Again, this is a refreshing introduction to ethics, a topic about which I know more than about cosmology. It is therefore easier for me to find weaknesses in this book than in the books on cosmology which have been mentioned. But I shall not discuss ethics here.
Finngeir Hiorth 21 March 1997
Finngeir Hiorth has published widely in the fields of philosophy and Indonesian studies. He is also the author of Introduction to Atheism, Indian Secular Society, 85018A Shivajinagar, Pune 411 004, India, 1995, 178 pp., bibliography, index, US$ 18.- post free and of Introduction to Humanism, Indian Secular Society, 1996, 248 pp., US$ 15.- post free. The Indian Secular Society will also publish his Atheism in India. Another recent publication by Hiorth is Secularism in Sweden, Human-Etisk Forbund, St. Olavsgt. 27, N-Cl 66 Oslo, Norway, 1995, 64 pp.
"Cosmology for Beginners" is copyright © 1997 by Finngeir Hiorth. All rights reserved.
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