Non-Fiction Reviews


Origins
The Scientific Story of Creation

(2015) Jim Baggott, Oxford University Press, Ł25 / US$34.95, hrdbk, xvii + 403pp, ISBN 978-0-198-70764-6

 

I have always contended that it is really  important that one knows where one is, and preferably how you got there: arguably doubly so waking up des a bęte  the day after the night before. Indeed, don't nearly all of us at some stage or another wonder about life, the universe and everything. There is much we genuinely do not know, but equally science tells us a lot; it certainly tells us a lot more than the two-digit answer of '42' that Douglas Adams proposed in his novel The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Yet few of us have the time to research the science literature, let alone the expertise, to bring it all together in one coherent narrative to give us science's current perspective on the story of creation from Big Bang, and then planetary formation through natural evolution to you and me. Here, the good news is that the British chemist Jim Baggott has done just this with Origins: The Scientific Story of Creation.

It should be noted that this is not a story of speculation, though there is inevitably some and there certainly are areas of the unknown. What Jim Baggott has done is to focus one what we are reasonably confident. So, while he starts with the Big Bang, he does not speculate how it was initiated: there are no mentions of colliding branes or whatever; he sticks to what we are fairly certain in all likelihood happened. Following an excursion into the condensation of sub-atomic particles (quarks etc) and the precipitation of light and matter, he takes us through the formation of the very large, very hot, ultraviolet bright and extremely short-lived hydrogen 'population III' stars whose explosive demise produced the heavier elements which later population stars would see along with the planets (such as our Earth) that surrounds them.

The book then focuses on the Earth: it and its Moon's formation, and the quite rapid establishment of simple life before looking at how more complex cells, then multicellular creatures evolving ultimately leading to us. This story of life takes up half the book and along the way there are hiccoughs such as mass extinctions, before we get to the early species of human, and then the progression to anatomically modern humans a couple of hundred thousand years ago. Finally, he looks at consciousness, or sentience, before ending with a brief mention of science that – had the Universe's history been just a 24 hour day long – had been formulated in the last three thousandths of a second.

Now, this might seem that this is a giddying journey encompassing as it does (to use the author's own words and taking a deep breath): aspects of cosmology and particle physics; stellar and galactic evolution; planetary formation; the chemistry of life; molecular biology; geology; basic Earth systems science; and the evolution of multicelled species through to mammals and humans…  Yet, though it might seem a heady brew, actually Jim Baggott takes us through it all at a steady pace.

Though I am not a physicist – and I still would like to know why Einstein assumed the constancy of light's velocity in vacuo (though Concatenation's physicist has tried to explain it to me a couple of times but got lost when he started linking Noether's work to Einstein's) – I can say that the Earth system science, and geology is broadly spot on. I say 'broadly' because there are caveats I would have included and I personally am not entirely comfortable with the idea of the Great Oxidation Event's generation of oxygen enabling the evolution of eukaryotic (cells with nuclei and organelles) rather I am one of those now considering the reverse happened (see chap. 3 Climate Change 2007/2013) but had Jim Baggott included all such caveats (let alone those that cosmologists and physicists might have) then the book would undoubtedly have been a few hundred pages longer and no longer the more straightforward a read as we actually are given.

Also along the way we do get some of the author's own insights. I was particularly charmed, if not taken, by his recounting that he could not find a name in the literature for the interstellar dust cloud out of which our sun and its planet's condensed and so came up with one of his own: the 'Neigh Cloud' after the Egyptian goddess mother of the Sun god 'Ra'. I also am with him in calling the Earth's sun 'Sol' which is something astronomers shy from but SF writers embrace as well as science writers such as Baggott (and even myself…). I am beginning to ramble aren't I.

What we have with Origins: The Scientific Story of Creation is a summary of the key science needed to understand how we (our species) came to being and the narrative of that story. The book itself assumes a secondary school level (16 year old) understanding of science and presumes a passion of a university undergraduate or, at the least, someone who devours popular science texts. It is reasonably well illustrated and a good number of those are in colour as are the page numbers: this book's production values are high. The cheaper paperback should be out by now and if you do want a science encapsulation of life the universe and everything without the maths ('42' isn't that particularly useful) then Jim Baggot's Origins is just the ticket.

Jonathan Cowie


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