Non-Fiction Reviews

Before Time Began
The Big Bang & the Emerging Universe

() , Oxford University Press, £19.99, hrdbk, xii + 153pp, ISBN 978-0-198-79242-0


Helmut Satz takes us non-physicists from before the beginning of the Big Bang through to the end of our Universe, but not necessarily the multiverse, in a short and very readable journey.

'Not another book on the Big Bang,' you may well exclaim and in one sense I sympathise but in another Helmut Satz has provided a highly digestible and concise book on the topic that many whose reading diet includes popular science will enjoy. Another important readership will be those school pupils in their first year studying physics for A-Level (a British pre-university qualification taken by 18 and 19 year-olds) who will want to see whether or not cosmology and related astrophysics may be something they want to consider as a possible future study option. And then there are those who are scientists – on in the case of this website's followers – scientists into science fiction, who themselves are not physicists but who wish to keep at least a loose eye on the latest cosmological thinking as to where the Universe came from, its evolution and where it might be going.

As a biologist cum biosphere (Earth system) scientist, I am certainly no physicist as (other than mainly technological, and biological energy generation and use) I largely left that behind. Therefore in terms of this topic while I may be aware of some of the basics (especially as they were a couple of decades ago), consider me ignorant. So I guess I am part of this book's target readership.

As an SF aficionado what grabbed my attention was the book's title, Before Time Began, and while this part of the story is addressed it needs to be emphasised that the book's subtitle, The Big Bang & the Emerging Universe', actually is its main thrust.

You have to remember that those who graduated, as I did, way back in the 20th century – which is not that long ago – we thought we could see almost everything cosmologically near us within our light cone. True, we were aware of the galaxy rotation problem and that there was this phenomena we then called 'missing mass'.  Today in the early 21st century things have moved on and it is now called 'dark matter'. What's more, as Helmut Satz informs us, dark matter makes up 20% of the Universe's energy. Two decades ago who would have thunk it?!  And then there is this weird super expansion of the Universe driven by 'dark energy' which itself makes up 75% of the Universe's energy. Taking all this into account, only 5% of the Universe's energy is in the form of matter as you and I understand it. (Which begs the question as to why whenever physicists come across something they don't understand they stick the word 'dark in front of it?) This large proportion of unknown, to my simple way of thinking, suggests that there must be an awful lot to see that we aren't seeing yet, as Satz informs us the average density of dark energy in the Universe is such that a volume the size of the Earth (which is BIG, I know because I am on it right now, honest) has a dark energy mass equivalent of only about one thousandth of a gram. That seems to me not a lot and no wonder why physicists have difficulty studying it.

There is not the space in a review to chart all, or even a representative proportion, of this book's highlights, but I do want to return to the book's title, Before Time Began. Here Helmut Satz is refreshingly honest and to-the-point in the book's introduction. I have read too many books that are so full of alternate hypotheses and caveats (which one would expect in an undergraduate essay) that the lay reader ends up confused. So while the author does let us know at various points in the book that there are alternate ideas (and caveats), he unashamedly favours his own take saying 'I calls them the way I see them'. I like that; we non-physicists aren’t equipped to weigh up the balance of evidence between alternate theories, so well done to Satz for not laying that bad trip on us: it is good enough for us to know that there are alternate ideas which might include 'c' and 'd' but we certainly don't need to know the minutiae of 'e' through to whatever.

Here it should be said that Satz is very much a multiverse man and that he sees our universe as one of many that expanded as if a bubble of steam in the boiling water of a multiverse: he does not bog us down with the various types of multiverse from Everett or the idea that we are on/in a brane within the bulk.

Nonetheless, as said, the main thrust of the book is the way matter condensed out of the primordial, high-energy primordial particles, via a hot soup of fermions and bosons, and other phases. (I use the word 'phases' here I suspect out of ignorance but I hope you follow my drift.) The author seems more confident here.

Now, I already knew that much of this condensing through to leptons took place within the first second of the Universe's existence. One of the things that struck me was that dark energy took over from gravity as being the dominant force in the expansion of our Universe some 500 million years ago. As a bio-geoscientist I am familiar with this time scale as that was roughly time following Snowball Earth II and the Ediacaran first stab at multicellular life, that many of the multicellular phyla we still see today got going. And though this train of thought is not in the book it did get me wondering, from an exobiological perspective, if there was a related sweet spot in the Universe's evolution for complex life? The book-review point I'm making here is that Satz book got me thinking and that's no bad thing especially if others, with alternative science backgrounds, come away from reading Satz book with different contemplations.

Niggles. Well we have a European author writing for an English publisher, yet the text is in non-European, US English. Go figure. Possibly a sad reflection of the socio-economics of our times. (Some of my own work has appeared thus, but it doesn't make this right.)

The other problem I had was that there were times I wish I was being told more.  For example, I get that the idea, Satz tells us, that the concept of 'inflation' explains the uniformity of the cosmic background radiation, but I wanted to know more, especially how come it was a faster than light event? But here's the thing, that problem is not Satz' problem or the publishers'; it is my problem Satz has given me by getting me to want to know more.  And if a popular science book does that – stimulate interest – then surely it has done its job.

Jonathan Cowie

[Up: Non-Fiction Index | Top: Concatenation]

[Updated: 17.9.15 | Contact | Copyright | Privacy]