The Periodic Kingdom: A Journey Into the Land of the Chemical Elements by Peter Atkins (1995)

Chemistry is the science of changes in matter. (p.37)

At just under 150 pages long, A Journey Into the Land of the Chemical Elements is intended as a novel and imaginative introduction to the 118 or so chemical elements which are the basic components of chemistry, and which, for the past 100 years or so, have been laid out in the grid arrangement known as the periodic table.

The periodic table explained

Just to refresh your memory, it’s called the periodic table because it is arranged into rows called ‘periods’. These are numbered 1 to 7 down the left-hand side.

What is a period? The ‘period number’ of an element signifies ‘the highest energy level an electron in that element occupies (in the unexcited state)’. To put it another way, the ‘period number’ of an element is its number of atomic orbitals. An orbital is the number of orbital positions an electron can take around the nucleus. Think of it like the orbit of the earth round the sun.

For each element there is a limited number of these ‘orbits’ which electrons can take up. Hydrogen, in row one, can only have one electron because it only has one possible orbital for an electron to take up around its nucleus. All the elements in row 2 have two orbitals for their electrons, and so on.

Sodium, for instance, sits in the third period, which means a sodium atom typically has electrons in the first three energy levels. Moving down the table, periods are longer because it takes more electrons to fill the larger and more complex outer levels.

The columns of the table are arranged into ‘groups’ from 1 to 18 along the top. Elements that occupy the same column or group have the same number of electrons in their outer orbital. These outer electrons are called ‘valence electrons’. The electrons in the outer orbital are the first ones to be involved in chemical bonds with other elements; they are relatively easy to dislodge, the ones in the lower orbitals progressively harder.

Elements with identical ‘valance electron configurations’ tend to behave in a similar fashion chemically. For example, all the elements in group or column 18 are gases which are slow to interact with other chemicals and so are known as the inert gases – helium, neon etc. Atkins describes the amazing achievement of the Scottish chemist William Ramsey in discovering almost all the inert gases in the 1890s.

Although there are 18 columns, the actual number of electrons in the outer orbital only goes up to 8. Take nitrogen in row 2 column 15. Nitrogen has the atomic number seven. The atomic number means there are seven electrons in a neutral atom of nitrogen. How many electrons are in its outer orbital? Although nitrogen is in the fifteenth column, that column is actually labelled ‘5A’. 5 represents the number of electrons in the outer orbital. So all this tells you that nitrogen has seven electrons in two orbitals around the nucleus, two in the first orbital and five in the second (2-5).

 

The Periodic Table. Karl Tate © LiveScience.com

Note that each element has two numbers in its cell. The one at the top is the atomic number. This is the number of protons in the nucleus of the element. Note how the atomic number increases in a regular, linear manner, from 1 for hydrogen at the top left, to 118 for Oganesson at the bottom right. After number 83, bismuth, all the elements are radioactive.

(N.B. When Atkins’s book was published in 1995 the table stopped at number 109, Meitnerium. As I write this, 24 years later, it has been extended to number 118, Oganesson. These later elements have been created in minute quantities in laboratories and some of them only exist for a few moments.)

Beneath the element name is the atomic weight. This is the mass of a given atom, measured on a scale in which the hydrogen atom has the weight of one. Because most of the mass in an atom is in the nucleus, and each proton and neutron has an atomic weight near one, the atomic weight is very nearly equal to the number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus.

Note the freestanding pair of rows at the bottom, coloured in purple and orange. These are the lanthanides and actinides. We’ll come to them in a moment.

Not only are the elements arranged into periods and groups but they are also categorised into groupings according to their qualities. In this diagram (taken from LiveScience.com) the different groupings are colour-coded. The groupings are, moving from left to right:

Alkali metals The alkali metals make up most of Group 1, the table’s first column. Shiny and soft enough to cut with a knife, these metals start with lithium (Li) and end with francium (Fr), among the rarest elements on earth: Atkins tells us that at any one moment there are only seventeen atoms of francium on the entire planet. The alkali metals are extremely reactive and burst into flame or even explode on contact with water, so chemists store them in oils or inert gases. Hydrogen, with its single electron, also lives in Group 1, but is considered a non-metal.

Alkaline-earth metals The alkaline-earth metals make up Group 2 of the periodic table, from beryllium (Be) through radium (Ra). Each of these elements has two electrons in its outermost energy level, which makes the alkaline earths reactive enough that they’re rarely found in pure form in nature. But they’re not as reactive as the alkali metals. Their chemical reactions typically occur more slowly and produce less heat compared to the alkali metals.

Lanthanides The third group is much too long to fit into the third column, so it is broken out and flipped sideways to become the top row of what Atkins calls ‘the Southern Island’ that floats at the bottom of the table. This is the lanthanides, elements 57 through 71, lanthanum (La) to lutetium (Lu). The elements in this group have a silvery white color and tarnish on contact with air.

Actinides The actinides line forms the bottom row of the Southern Island and comprise elements 89, actinium (Ac) to 103, lawrencium (Lr). Of these elements, only thorium (Th) and uranium (U) occur naturally on earth in substantial amounts. All are radioactive. The actinides and the lanthanides together form a group called the inner transition metals.

Transition metals Returning to the main body of the table, the remainder of Groups 3 through 12 represent the rest of the transition metals. Hard but malleable, shiny, and possessing good conductivity, these elements are what you normally associate with the word metal. This is the location of many of the best known metals, including gold, silver, iron and platinum.

Post-transition metals Ahead of the jump into the non-metal world, shared characteristics aren’t neatly divided along vertical group lines. The post-transition metals are aluminum (Al), gallium (Ga), indium (In), thallium (Tl), tin (Sn), lead (Pb) and bismuth (Bi), and they span Group 13 to Group 17. These elements have some of the classic characteristics of the transition metals, but they tend to be softer and conduct more poorly than other transition metals. Many periodic tables will feature a highlighted ‘staircase’ line below the diagonal connecting boron with astatine. The post-transition metals cluster to the lower left of this line. Atkins points out that all the elements beyond bismuth (row 6, column 15) are radioactive. Here be skull-and-crossbones warning signs.

Metalloids The metalloids are boron (B), silicon (Si), germanium (Ge), arsenic (As), antimony (Sb), tellurium (Te) and polonium (Po). They form the staircase that represents the gradual transition from metals to non-metals. These elements sometimes behave as semiconductors (B, Si, Ge) rather than as conductors. Metalloids are also called ‘semi-metals’ or ‘poor metals’.

Non-metals Everything else to the upper right of the staircase (plus hydrogen (H), stranded way back in Group 1) is a non-metal. These include the crucial elements for life on earth, carbon (C), nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), oxygen (O), sulfur (S) and selenium (Se).

Halogens The top four elements of Group 17, from fluorine (F) through astatine (At), represent one of two subsets of the non-metals. The halogens are quite chemically reactive and tend to pair up with alkali metals to produce various types of salt. Common salt is a marriage between the alkali metal sodium and the halogen chlorine.

Noble gases Colorless, odourless and almost completely non-reactive, the inert, or noble gases round out the table in Group 18. The low boiling point of helium makes it a useful refrigerant when exceptionally low temperatures are required; most of them give off a colourful display when electric current is passed through them, hence the generic name of neon lights, invented in 1910 by Georges Claude.

The metaphor of the Periodic Kingdom

In fact the summary I’ve given above isn’t at all how Atkins’s book sounds. It is the way I have had to make notes to myself to understand the table.

Atkins’ book is far from being so clear and straightforward. The Periodic Kingdom is dominated by the central conceit that Atkins treats the periodic table as if it were an actual country. His book is not a comprehensive encyclopedia of biochemistry, mineralogy and industrial chemistry; it is a light-hearted ‘traveller’s guide’ (p.27) to the table which he never refers to as a table, but as a kingdom, complete with its own geography, layout, mountain peaks and ravines, and surrounded by a sea of nothingness.

Hence, from start to finish of the book, Atkins uses metaphors from landscape and exploration to describe the kingdom, talking about ‘the Western desert’, ‘the Southern Shore’ and so on. Here’s a characteristic sentence:

The general disposition of the land is one of metals in the west, giving way, as you travel eastward, to a varied landscape of nonmetals, which terminates in largely inert elements at the eastern shoreline. (p.9)

I guess the idea is to help us memorise the table by describing its characteristics and the changes in atomic weight, physical character, alkalinity, reactivity and so on of the various elements, in terms of geography. Presumably he thinks it’s easier to remember geography than raw information. His approach certainly gives rise to striking analogies:

North of the mainland, situated rather like Iceland off the northwestern edge of Europe, lies a single, isolated region – hydrogen. This simple but gifted element is an essential outpost of the kingdom, for despite its simplicity it is rich in chemical personality. It is also the most abundant element in the universe and the fuel of the stars. (p.9)

Above all the extended metaphor (the periodic table imagined as a country) frees Atkins not to have to lay out the subject in either a technical nor a chronological order but to take a pleasant stroll across the landscape, pointing out interesting features and making a wide variety of linkages, pointing out the secret patterns and subterranean connections between elements in the same ‘regions’ of the table.

There are quite a few of these, for example the way iron can easily form alliances with the metals close to it such as cobalt, nickel and manganese to produce steel. Or the way the march of civilisation progressed from ‘east’ to ‘west’ through the metals, i.e. moving from copper, to iron and steel, each representing a new level of culture and technology.

The kingdom metaphor also allows him to get straight to core facts about each element without getting tangled in pedantic introductions: thus we learn there would be no life without nitrogen which is a key building block of all proteins, not to mention the DNA molecule; or that sodium and potassium (both alkali metals) are vital in the functioning of brain and nervous system cells.

And hence the generally light-hearted, whimsical tone allows him to make fanciful connections: calcium is a key ingredient in the bones of endoskeletons and the shells of exoskeletons, compacted dead shells made chalk, but in another format made the limestone which the Romans and others ground up to make the mortar which held their houses together.

Then there is magnesium. I didn’t think magnesium was particularly special, but learned from Atkins that a single magnesium atom is at the heart of the chlorophyll molecule, and:

Without chlorophyll, the world would be a damp warm rock instead of the softly green haven of life that we know, for chlorophyll holds its magnesium eye to the sun and captures the energy of sunlight, in the first step of photosynthesis. (p.16)

You see how the writing is aspiring to an evocative, poetic quality- a deliberate antidote to the dry and factual way chemistry was taught to us at school. He means to convey the sense of wonder, the strange patterns and secret linkages underlying these wonderful entities. I liked it when he tells us that life is about capturing, storing and deploying energy.

Life is a controlled unwinding of energy.

Or about how phosphorus, in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is a perfect vector for the deployment of energy, common to all living cells. Hence the importance of phosphates as fertiliser to grow the plants we need to survive. Arsenic is such an effective poison because it is a neighbour of phosphorus, shares some of its qualities, and so inserts itself into chemical reactions usually carried out by phosphorus but blocking them, nulling them, killing the host organism.

All the facts I explained in the first half of this post (mostly cribbed from the LiveScience.com website) are not reached or explained until about page 100 of this 150-page-long book. Personally, I felt I needed them earlier. As soon as I looked at the big diagram of the table he gives right at the end of the book I became intrigued by the layout and the numbers and couldn’t wait for him to get round to explaining them, which is why I went on the internet to find out more, more quickly, and why Istarted my review with a factual summary.

And eventually, the very extended conceit of ‘the kingdom’ gets rather tiresome. Whether intentional or not, the continual references to ‘the kingdom’ begin to sound Biblical and pretentious.

Now the kingdom is virtually fully formed. It rises above the sea of nonbeing and will remain substantially the same almost forever. The kingdom was formed in and among the stars.. (p.75)

The chapter on the scientists who first isolated the elements and began sketching out the table continues the metaphor by referring to them as ‘cartographers’, and the kingdom as made of islands and archipelagos.

As an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Jena, [Johann Döbereiner] noticed that reports of some of the kingdom’s islands – reports brought back by their chemical explorers – suggested a brotherhood of sorts between the regions. (p.79)

For me, the obsessive use of the geographical metaphor teeters on the border between being useful, and becoming irritating. He introduces me to the names of the great pioneers – I was particularly interested in Dalton, Michael Faraday, Humphrey Davy (who isolated a bunch of elements in the early 1800s) and then William Ramsey – but I had to go to Wikipedia to really understand their achievements.

Atkins speculates that some day we might find another bunch or set of elements, which might even form an entire new ‘continent’, though it is unlikely. This use of a metaphor is sort of useful for spatially imagining how this might happen, but I quickly got bored of him calling this possible set of new discoveries ‘Atlantis’, and of the poetic language as a whole.

Is the kingdom eternal, or will it slip beneath the waves? There is a good chance that one day – in a few years, or a few hundred years at most – Atlantis will be found, which will be an intellectual achievement but probably not one of great practical significance…

A likely (but not certain) scenario is that in that distant time, perhaps 10100 years into the future, all matter will have decayed into radiation, it is even possible to imagine the process. Gradually the peaks and dales of the kingdom will slip away and Mount Iron will rise higher, as elements collapse into its lazy, low-energy form. Provided that matter does not decay into radiation first (which is one possibility), the kingdom will become a lonely pinnacle, with iron the only protuberance from the sea of nonbeing… (p.77)

And I felt the tone sometimes bordered on the patronising.

The second chemical squabble is in the far North, and concerns the location of the offshore Northern Island of hydrogen. To those who do not like offshore islands, there is the problem of where to put it on the mainland. This is the war of the Big-Endians versus the Little-Endians. Big-Endians want to tow the island ashore to form a new Northwestern Cape, immediately north of lithium and beryllium and across from the Northeastern Cape of helium… (p.90)

Hard core chemistry

Unfortunately, none of these imaginative metaphors can help when you come to chapter 9, an unexpectedly brutal bombardment of uncompromising hard core information about the quantum mechanics underlying the structure of the elements.

In quick succession this introduces us to a blizzard of ideas: orbitals, energy levels, Pauli’s law of exclusion, and then the three imaginary lobes of orbitals.

As I understood it, the Pauli exclusion principle states that no two electrons can inhabit a particular orbital or ‘layer’ or shell. But what complicates the picture is that these orbitals come in three lobes conceived as lying along imaginary x, y and z axes. This overlapped with the information that there are four types of orbitals – s, p, d and f orbitals. In addition, there are three p-orbitals, five d-orbitals, seven f-orbitals. And the two lobes of a p-orbital are on either side of an imaginary plane cutting through the nucleus, there are two such planes in a d-orbital and three in an f-orbital.

After pages of amiable waffle about kingdoms and Atlantis, this was like being smacked in the face with a wet towel. Even rereading the chapter three times, I still found it impossible to process and understand this information.

I understand Atkins when he says it is the nature of the orbitals, and which lobes they lie along, which dictates an element’s place in the table, but he lost me when he said a number of electrons lie inside the nucleus – which is the opposite of everything I was ever taught – and then when described the way electrons fly across or through the nucleus, something to do with the processes of ‘shielding’ and ‘penetration’.

The conspiracy of shielding and penetration ensure that the 2s-orbital is somewhat lower in energy than the p-orbitals of the same rank. By extension, where other types of orbitals are possible, ns- and np-orbitals both lie lower in energy than nd-orbitals, and nd-orbitals in turn have lower energy than nf-orbitals. An s-orbital has no nodal plane, and electrons can be found at the nucleus. A p-orbital has one plane, and the electron is excluded from the nucleus. A d-orbital has two intersecting planes, and the exclusion of the electron is greater. An f-orbital has three planes, and the exclusion is correspondingly greater still. (p.118)

Note how all the chummy metaphors of kingdoms and deserts and mountains have disappeared. This is the hard-core quantum mechanical basis of the elements, and at least part of the reason it is so difficult to understand is because he has made the weird decision to throw half a dozen complex ideas at the reader at the same time. I read the chapter three times, still didn’t get it, and eventually wanted to cry with frustration.

This online lecture gives you a flavour of the subject, although it doesn’t mention ‘lobes’ or penetration or shielding.

In the next chapter, Atkins, briskly assuming  his readers have processed and understood all of this information, goes on to combine the stuff about lobes and orbitals with a passage from earlier in the book, where he had introduced the concept of ions, cations, and anions:

  • ion an atom or molecule with a net electric charge due to the loss or gain of one or more electrons
  • cation a positively charged ion
  • anion a negatively charged ion

He had also explained the concept of electron affinity

The electron affinity (Eea) of an atom or molecule is defined as the amount of energy released or spent when an electron is added to a neutral atom or molecule in the gaseous state to form a negative ion.

Isn’t ‘affinity’ a really bad word to describe this? ‘Affinity’ usually means ‘a natural liking for and understanding of someone or something’. If it is the amount of energy released, why don’t they call it something useful like the ‘energy release’? I felt the same about the terms ‘cation’ and ‘anion’ – that they had been deliberately coined to mystify and confuse. I kept having to stop and look up what they meant since the name is absolutely no use whatsoever.

And the electronvolt – ‘An electronvolt (eV) is the amount of kinetic energy gained or lost by a single electron accelerating from rest through an electric potential difference of one volt in vacuum.’

Combining the not-very-easily understandable material about electron volts with the incomprehensible stuff about orbitals means that the final 30 pages or so of The Periodic Kingdom is thirty pages of this sort of thing:

Take sodium: it has a single electron outside a compact, noble-gaslike core (its structure is [Ne]3s¹). The first electron is quite easy to remove (its removal requires an investment of 5.1 eV), but removal of the second, which has come from the core that lies close to the nucleus, requires an enormous energy – nearly ten times as much, in fact (47.3 eV). (p.130)

This reminds me of the comparable moment in John Allen Paulos’s book Innumeracy where I ceased to follow the argument. After rereading the passage where I stumbled and fell I eventually realised it was because Paulos had introduced three or so important facts about probability theory very, very quickly, without fully explaining them or letting them bed in – and then had spun a fancy variation on them…. leaving me standing gaping on the shore.

Same thing happens here. I almost but don’t quite understand what [Ne]3s¹ means, and almost but don’t quite grasp the scale of electronvolts, so when he goes on to say that releasing the second electron requires ten times as much energy, of course I understand the words, but I cannot quite grasp why it should be so because I have not understood the first two premises.

As with Paulos, the author has gone too fast. These are not simple ideas you can whistle through and expect your readers to lap up. These are very, very difficult ideas most readers will be completely unused to.

I felt the sub-atomic structure chapter should almost have been written twice, approached from entirely different points of view. Even the diagrams were no use because I didn’t understand what they were illustrating because I didn’t understand his swift introduction of half a dozen impenetrable concepts in half a page.

Once through, briskly, is simply not enough. The more I tried to reread the chapter, the more the words started to float in front of my eyes and my brain began to hurt. It is packed with sentences like these:

Now imagine a 2 p-electron… (an electron that occupies a 2 p-orbital). Such an electron is banished from the nucleus on account of the existence of the nodal plane. This electron is more completely shielded from the pull of the nucleus, and so it is not gripped as tightly.In other words, because of the interplay of shielding and penetration, a 2 s-orbital has a lower energy (an electron in it is gripped more tightly) than a 2 p-orbital… Thus the third and final electron of lithium enters the 2 s-orbital, and its overall structure is 1s²2s¹. (p.118)

I very nearly understand what some of these words meant, but the cumulative impact of sentences like these was like being punched to the ground and then given a good kicking. And when the last thirty pages went on to add the subtleties of electronvoltages and micro-electric charges into the mix, to produce ever-more complex explanations for the sub-atomic interactivity of different elements, I gave up.

Summary

The first 90 or so pages of The Periodic Kingdom do manage to give you a feel for the size and shape and underlying patterns of the periodic table. Although it eventually becomes irritating, the ruling metaphor of seeing the whole place as a country with different regions and terrains works – up to a point – to explain or suggest the patterns of size, weight, reactivity and so on underlying the elements.

When he introduced ions was when he first lost me, but I stumbled on through the entertaining trivia and titbits surrounding the chemistry pioneers who first isolated and named many of the elements and the first tentative attempts to create a table for another thirty pages or so.

But the chapter about the sub-atomic structure of chemical elements comprehensively lost me. I was already staggering, and this finished me off.

If Atkins’s aim was to explain the basics of chemistry to an educated layman, then the book was, for me, a complete failure. I sort of quarter understood the orbitals, lobes, nodes section but anything less than 100% understanding means you won’t be able to follow him to the next level of complexity.

As with the Paulos book, I don’t think I failed because I am stupid – I think that, on both occasions, the author failed to understand how challenging his subject matter is, and introduced a flurry of concepts far too quickly, at far too advanced a level.

Looking really closely I realise it is on the same page (page 111) that Atkins introduces the concepts of energy levels, orbitals, the fact that there are three two-lobed orbitals, and the vital existence of nodal planes. On the same page! Why the rush?

An interesting and seemingly trivial feature of a p-orbital, but a feature on which the structure of the kingdom will later be seen to hinge, is that the electron will never be found on the imaginary plane passing through the nucleus and dividing the two lobes of the orbital. This plane is called a nodal plane. An s-orbital does not have such a nodal plane, and the electron it describes may be found at the nucleus. Every p-orbital has a nodal plane of this kind, and therefore an electron that occupies a p-orbital will never be found at the nucleus. (p.111)

Do you understand that? Because if you don’t, you won’t understand the last 40 or so pages of the book, because this is the ‘feature on which the structure of the kingdom will later be seen to hinge’.

I struggled through the final 40 pages weeping tears of frustration, and flushed with anger at having the thing explained to me so badly. Exactly how I felt during my chemistry lessons at school forty years ago.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

The Environment

Genetics and life

Human evolution

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

The Book of Universes by John D. Barrow (2011)

This book is twice as long and half as good as Barrow’s earlier primer, The Origin of the Universe.

In that short book Barrow focused on the key ideas of modern cosmology – introducing them to us in ascending order of complexity, and as simply as possible. He managed to make mind-boggling ideas and demanding physics very accessible.

This book – although it presumably has the merit of being more up to date (published in 2011 as against 1994) – is an expansion of the earlier one, an attempt to be much more comprehensive, but which, in the process, tends to make the whole subject more confusing.

The basic premise of both books is that, since Einstein’s theory of relativity was developed in the 1910s, cosmologists and astronomers and astrophysicists have:

  1. shown that the mathematical formulae in which Einstein’s theories are described need not be restricted to the universe as it has traditionally been conceived; in fact they can apply just as effectively to a wide variety of theoretical universes – and the professionals have, for the past hundred years, developed a bewildering array of possible universes to test Einstein’s insights to the limit
  2. made a series of discoveries about our actual universe, the most important of which is that a) it is expanding b) it probably originated in a big bang about 14 billion years ago, and c) in the first few milliseconds after the bang it probably underwent a period of super-accelerated expansion known as the ‘inflation’ which may, or may not, have introduced all kinds of irregularities into ‘our’ universe, and may even have created a multitude of other universes, of which ours is just one

If you combine a hundred years of theorising with a hundred years of observations, you come up with thousands of theories and models.

In The Origin of the Universe Barrow stuck to the core story, explaining just as much of each theory as is necessary to help the reader – if not understand – then at least grasp their significance. I can write the paragraphs above because of the clarity with which The Origin of the Universe explained it.

In The Book of Universes, on the other hand, Barrow’s aim is much more comprehensive and digressive. He is setting out to list and describe every single model and theory of the universe which has been created in the past century.

He introduces the description of each model with a thumbnail sketch of its inventor. This ought to help, but it doesn’t because the inventors generally turn out to be polymaths who also made major contributions to all kinds of other areas of science. Being told a list of Paul Dirac’s other major contributions to 20th century science is not a good way for preparing your mind to then try and understand his one intervention on universe-modelling (which turned, in any case, out to be impractical and lead nowhere).

Another drawback of the ‘comprehensive’ approach is that a lot of these models have been rejected or barely saw the light of day before being disproved or – more complicatedly – were initially disproved but contained aspects or insights which turned out to be useful forty years later, and were subsequently recycled into revised models. It gets a bit challenging to try and hold all this in your mind.

In The Origin of the Universe Barrow sticks to what you could call the canonical line of models, each of which represented the central line of speculation, even if some ended up being disproved (like Hoyle and Gold and Bondi’s model of the steady state universe). Given that all of this material is pretty mind-bending, and some of it can only be described in advanced mathematical formulae, less is definitely more. I found The Book of Universes simply had too many universes, explained too quickly, and lost amid a lot of biographical bumpf summarising people’s careers or who knew who or contributed to who’s theory. Too much information.

One last drawback of the comprehensive approach is that quite important points – which are given space to breathe and sink in in The Origin of the Universe are lost in the flood of facts in The Book of Universes.

I’m particularly thinking of Einstein’s notion of the cosmological constant which was not strictly necessary to his formulations of relativity, but which Einstein invented and put into them solely in order to counteract the force of gravity and ensure his equations reflected the commonly held view that the universe was in a permanent steady state.

This was a mistake and Einstein is often quoted as admitting it was the biggest mistake of his career. In 1965 scientists discovered the cosmic background radiation which proved that the universe began in an inconceivably intense explosion, that the universe was therefore expanding and that the explosive, outward-propelling force of this bang was enough to counteract the contracting force of the gravity of all the matter in the universe without any need for a hypothetical cosmological constant.

I understand this (if I do) because in The Origin of the Universe it is given prominence and carefully explained. By contrast, in The Book of Universes it was almost lost in the flood of information and it was only because I’d read the earlier book that I grasped its importance.

The Book of Universes

Barrow gives a brisk recap of cosmology from the Sumerians and Egyptians, through the ancient Greeks’ establishment of the system named after Ptolemy in which the earth is the centre of the solar system, on through the revisions of Copernicus and Galileo which placed the sun firmly at the centre of the solar system, on to the three laws of Isaac Newton which showed how the forces which govern the solar system (and more distant bodies) operate.

There is then a passage on the models of the universe generated by the growing understanding of heat and energy acquired by Victorian physicists, which led to one of the most powerful models of the universe, the ‘heat death’ model popularised by Lord Kelvin in the 1850s, in which, in the far future, the universe evolves to a state of complete homegeneity, where no region is hotter than any other and therefore there is no thermodynamic activity, no life, just a low buzzing noise everywhere.

But this is all happens in the first 50 pages and is just preliminary throat-clearing before Barrow gets to the weird and wonderful worlds envisioned by modern cosmology i.e. from Einstein onwards.

In some of these models the universe expands indefinitely, in others it will reach a peak expansion before contracting back towards a Big Crunch. Some models envision a static universe, in others it rotates like a top, while other models are totally chaotic without any rules or order.

Some universes are smooth and regular, others characterised by clumps and lumps. Some are shaken by cosmic tides, some oscillate. Some allow time travel into the past, while others threaten to allow an infinite number of things to happen in a finite period. Some end with another big bang, some don’t end at all. And in only a few of them do the conditions arise for intelligent life to evolve.

The Book of Universes then goes on, in 12 chapters, to discuss – by my count – getting on for a hundred types or models of hypothetical universes, as conceived and worked out by mathematicians, physicists, astrophysicists and cosmologists from Einstein’s time right up to the date of publication, 2011.

A list of names

Barrow namechecks and briefly explains the models of the universe developed by the following (I am undertaking this exercise partly to remind myself of everyone mentioned, partly to indicate to you the overwhelming number of names and ideas the reader is bombarded with):

  • Aristotle
  • Ptolemy
  • Copernicus
  • Giovanni Riccioli
  • Tycho Brahe
  • Isaac Newton
  • Thomas Wright (1771-86)
  • Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
  • Pierre Laplace (1749-1827) devised what became the standard Victorian model of the universe
  • Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) discussed the physical conditions of a universe necessary for life to evolve in it
  • Lord Kelvin (1824-1907) material falls into the central region of the universe and coalesce with other stars to maintain power output over immense periods
  • Rudolf Clausius (1822-88) coined the word ‘entropy’ in 1865 to describe the inevitable progress from ordered to disordered states
  • William Jevons (1835-82) believed the second law of thermodynamics implies that universe must have had a beginning
  • Pierre Duhem (1961-1916) Catholic physicist accepted the notion of entropy but denied that it implied the universe ever had a beginning
  • Samuel Tolver Preson (1844-1917) English engineer and physicist, suggested the universe is so vast that different ‘patches’ might experience different rates of entropy
  • Ludwig Boltzmann and Ernst Zermelo suggested the universe is infinite and is already in a state of thermal equilibrium, but just with random fluctuations away from uniformity, and our galaxy is one of those fluctuations
  • Albert Einstein (1879-1955) his discoveries were based on insights, not maths: thus he saw the problem with Newtonian physics is that it privileges an objective outside observer of all the events in the universe; one of Einstein’s insights was to abolish the idea of a privileged point of view and emphasise that everyone is involved in the universe’s dynamic interactions; thus gravity does not pass through a clear, fixed thing called space; gravity bends space.

The American physicist John Wheeler once encapsulated Einstein’s theory in two sentences:

Matter tells space how to curve. Space tells matter how to move. (quoted on page 52)

  • Marcel Grossmann provided the mathematical underpinning for Einstein’s insights
  • Willem de Sitter (1872-1934) inventor of, among other things, the de Sitter effect which represents the effect of the curvature of spacetime, as predicted by general relativity, on a vector carried along with an orbiting body – de Sitter’s universe gets bigger and bigger for ever but never had a zero point; but then de Sitter’s model contains no matter
  • Vesto Slipher (1875-1969) astronomer who discovered the red shifting of distant galaxies in 1912, the first ever empirical evidence for the expansion of the galaxy
  • Alexander Friedmann (1888-1925) Russian mathematician who produced purely mathematical solutions to Einstein’s equation, devising models where the universe started out of nothing and expanded a) fast enough to escape the gravity exerted by its own contents and so will expand forever or b) will eventually succumb to the gravity of its own contents, stop expanding and contract back towards a big crunch. He also speculated that this process (expansion and contraction) could happen an infinite number of times, creating a cyclic series of bangs, expansions and contractions, then another bang etc
A graphic of the oscillating or cyclic universe (from Discovery magazine)

A graphic of the oscillating or cyclic universe (from Discovery magazine)

  • Arthur Eddington (1882-1944) most distinguished astrophysicist of the 1920s
  • George Lemaître (1894-1966) first to combine an expanding universe interpretation of Einstein’s equations with the latest data about redshifting, and show that the universe of Einstein’s equations would be very sensitive to small changes – his model is close to Eddington’s so that it is often called the Eddington-Lemaître universe: it is expanding, curved and finite but doesn’t have a beginning
  • Edwin Hubble (1889-1953) provided solid evidence of the redshifting (moving away) of distant galaxies, a main plank in the whole theory of a big bang, inventor of Hubble’s Law:
    • Objects observed in deep space – extragalactic space, 10 megaparsecs (Mpc) or more – are found to have a redshift, interpreted as a relative velocity away from Earth
    • This Doppler shift-measured velocity of various galaxies receding from the Earth is approximately proportional to their distance from the Earth for galaxies up to a few hundred megaparsecs away
  • Richard Tolman (1881-1948) took Friedmann’s idea of an oscillating universe and showed that the increased entropy of each universe would accumulate, meaning that each successive ‘bounce’ would get bigger; he also investigated what ‘lumpy’ universes would look like where matter is not evenly spaced but clumped: some parts of the universe might reach a maximum and start contracting while others wouldn’t; some parts might have had a big bang origin, others might not have
  • Arthur Milne (1896-1950) showed that the tension between the outward exploding force posited by Einstein’s cosmological constant and the gravitational contraction could actually be described using just Newtonian mathematics: ‘Milne’s universe is the simplest possible universe with the assumption that the universe s uniform in space and isotropic’, a ‘rational’ and consistent geometry of space – Milne labelled the assumption of Einsteinian physics that the universe is the same in all places the Cosmological Principle
  • Edmund Fournier d’Albe (1868-1933) posited that the universe has a hierarchical structure from atoms to the solar system and beyond
  • Carl Charlier (1862-1934) introduced a mathematical description of a never-ending hierarchy of clusters
  • Karl Schwarzschild (1873-1916) suggested  that the geometry of the universe is not flat as Euclid had taught, but might be curved as in the non-Euclidean geometries developed by mathematicians Riemann, Gauss, Bolyai and Lobachevski in the early 19th century
  • Franz Selety (1893-1933) devised a model for an infinitely large hierarchical universe which contained an infinite mass of clustered stars filling the whole of space, yet with a zero average density and no special centre
  • Edward Kasner (1878-1955) a mathematician interested solely in finding mathematical solutions to Einstein’s equations, Kasner came up with a new idea, that the universe might expand at different rates in different directions, in some parts it might shrink, changing shape to look like a vast pancake
  • Paul Dirac (1902-84) developed a Large Number Hypothesis that the really large numbers which are taken as constants in Einstein’s and other astrophysics equations are linked at a deep undiscovered level, among other things abandoning the idea that gravity is a constant: soon disproved
  • Pascual Jordan (1902-80) suggested a slight variation of Einstein’s theory which accounted for a varying constant of gravitation as through it were a new source of energy and gravitation
  • Robert Dicke (1916-97) developed an alternative theory of gravitation
  • Nathan Rosen (1909-995) young assistant to Einstein in America with whom he authored a paper in 1936 describing a universe which expands but has the symmetry of a cylinder, a theory which predicted the universe would be washed over by gravitational waves
  • Ernst Straus (1922-83) another young assistant to Einstein with whom he developed a new model, an expanding universe like those of Friedman and Lemaître but which had spherical holes removed like the bubbles in an Aero, each hole with a mass at its centre equal to the matter which had been excavated to create the hole
  • Eugene Lifschitz (1915-85) in 1946 showed that very small differences in the uniformity of matter in the early universe would tend to increase, an explanation of how the clumpy universe we live in evolved from an almost but not quite uniform distribution of matter – as we have come to understand that something like this did happen, Lifshitz’s calculations have come to be seen as a landmark
  • Kurt Gödel (1906-1978) posited a rotating universe which didn’t expand and, in theory, permitted time travel!
  • Hermann Bondi, Thomas Gold and Fred Hoyle collaborated on the steady state theory of a universe which is growing but remains essentially the same, fed by the creation of new matter out of nothing
  • George Gamow (1904-68)
  • Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman in 1948 showed that the ratio of the matter density of the universe to the cube of the temperature of any heat radiation present from its hot beginning is constant if the expansion is uniform and isotropic – they calculated the current radiation temperature should be 5 degrees Kelvin – ‘one of the most momentous predictions ever made in science’
  • Abraham Taub (1911-99) made a study of all the universes that are the same everywhere in space but can expand at different rates in different directions
  • Charles Misner (b.1932) suggested ‘chaotic cosmology’ i.e. that no matter how chaotic the starting conditions, Einstein’s equations prove that any universe will inevitably become homogenous and isotropic – disproved by the smoothness of the background radiation. Misner then suggested the Mixmaster universe, the  most complicated interpretation of the Einstein equations in which the universe expands at different rates in different directions and the gravitational waves generated by one direction interferes with all the others, with infinite complexity
  • Hannes Alfvén devised a matter-antimatter cosmology
  • Alan Guth (b.1947) in 1981 proposed a theory of ‘inflation’, that milliseconds after the big bang the universe underwent a swift process of hyper-expansion: inflation answers at a stroke a number of technical problems prompted by conventional big bang theory; but had the unforeseen implication that, though our region is smooth, parts of the universe beyond our light horizon might have grown from other areas of inflated singularity and have completely different qualities
  • Andrei Linde (b.1948) extrapolated that the inflationary regions might create sub-regions in  which further inflation might take place, so that a potentially infinite series of new universes spawn new universes in an ‘endlessly bifurcating multiverse’. We happen to be living in one of these bubbles which has lasted long enough for the heavy elements and therefore life to develop; who knows what’s happening in the other bubbles?
  • Ted Harrison (1919-2007) British cosmologist speculated that super-intelligent life forms might be able to develop and control baby universe, guiding the process of inflation so as to promote the constants require for just the right speed of growth to allow stars, planets and life forms to evolve. Maybe they’ve done it already. Maybe we are the result of their experiments.
  • Nick Bostrom (b.1973) Swedish philosopher: if universes can be created and developed like this then they will proliferate until the odds are that we are living in a ‘created’ universe and, maybe, are ourselves simulations in a kind of multiverse computer simulation

Although the arrival of Einstein and his theory of relativity marks a decisive break with the tradition of Newtonian physics, and comes at page 47 of this 300-page book, it seemed to me the really decisive break comes on page 198 with the publication Alan Guth’s theory of inflation.

Up till the Guth breakthrough, astrophysicists and astronomers appear to have focused their energy on the universe we inhabit. There were theoretical digressions into fantasies about other worlds and alternative universes but they appear to have been personal foibles and everyone agreed they were diversions from the main story.

However, the idea of inflation, while it solved half a dozen problems caused by the idea of a big bang, seems to have spawned a literally fantastic series of theories and speculations.

Throughout the twentieth century, cosmologists grew used to studying the different types of universe that emerged from Einstein’s equations, but they expected that some special principle, or starting state, would pick out one that best described the actual universe. Now, unexpectedly, we find that there might be room for many, perhaps all, of these possible universes somewhere in the multiverse. (p.254)

This is a really massive shift and it is marked by a shift in the tone and approach of Barrow’s book. Up till this point it had jogged along at a brisk rate namechecking a steady stream of mathematicians, physicists and explaining how their successive models of the universe followed on from or varied from each other.

Now this procedure comes to a grinding halt while Barrow enters a realm of speculation. He discusses the notion that the universe we live in might be a fake, evolved from a long sequence of fakes, created and moulded by super-intelligences for their own purposes.

Each of us might be mannequins acting out experiments, observed by these super-intelligences. In which case what value would human life have? What would be the definition of free will?

Maybe the discrepancies we observe in some of the laws of the universe have been planted there as clues by higher intelligences? Or maybe, over vast periods of time, and countless iterations of new universes, the laws they first created for this universe where living intelligences could evolve have slipped, revealing the fact that the whole thing is a facade.

These super-intelligences would, of course, have computers and technology far in advance of ours etc. I felt like I had wandered into a prose version of The Matrix and, indeed, Barrow apologises for straying into areas normally associated with science fiction (p.241).

Imagine living in a universe where nothing is original. Everything is a fake. No ideas are ever new. There is no novelty, no originality. Nothing is ever done for the first time and nothing will ever be done for the last time… (p.244)

And so on. During this 15-page-long fantasy the handy sequence of physicists comes to an end as he introduces us to contemporary philosophers and ethicists who are paid to think about the problem of being a simulated being inside a simulated reality.

Take Robin Hanson (b.1959), a research associate at the Future of Humanity Institute of Oxford University who, apparently, advises us all that we ought to behave so as to prolong our existence in the simulation or, hopefully, ensure we get recreated in future iterations of the simulation.

Are these people mad? I felt like I’d been transported into an episode of The Outer Limits or was back with my schoolfriend Paul, lying in a summer field getting stoned and wondering whether dandelions were a form of alien life that were just biding their time till they could take over the world. Why not, man?

I suppose Barrow has to include this material, and explain the nature of the anthropic principle (p.250), and go on to a digression about the search for extra-terrestrial life (p.248), and discuss the ‘replication paradox’ (in an infinite universe there will be infinite copies of you and me in which we perform an infinite number of variations on our lives: what would happen if you came face to face with one of your ‘copies?? p.246) – because these are, in their way, theories – if very fantastical theories – about the nature of the universe and he his stated aim is to be completely comprehensive.

The anthropic principle Observations of the universe must be compatible with the conscious and intelligent life that observes it. The universe is the way it is, because it has to be the way it is in order for life forms like us to evolve enough to understand it.

Still, it was a relief when he returned from vague and diffuse philosophical speculation to the more solid territory of specific physical theories for the last forty or so pages of the book. But it was very noticeable that, as he came up to date, the theories were less and less attached to individuals: modern research is carried out by large groups. And he increasingly is describing the swirl of ideas in which cosmologists work, which often don’t have or need specific names attached. And this change is denoted, in the texture of the prose, by an increase in the passive voice, the voice in which science papers are written: ‘it was observed that…’, ‘it was expected that…’, and so on.

  • Edward Tryon (b.1940) American particle physicist speculated that the entire universe might be a virtual fluctuation from the quantum vacuum, governed by the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle that limits our simultaneous knowledge of the position and momentum, or the time of occurrence and energy, of anything in Nature.
  • George Ellis (b.1939) created a catalogue of ‘topologies’ or shapes which the universe might have
  • Dmitri Sokolov and Victor Shvartsman in 1974 worked out what the practical results would be for astronomers if we lived in a strange shaped universe, for example a vast doughnut shape
  • Yakob Zeldovich and Andrei Starobinsky in 1984 further explored the likelihood of various types of ‘wraparound’ universes, predicting the fluctuations in the cosmic background radiation which might confirm such a shape
  • 1967 the Wheeler-De Witt equation – a first attempt to combine Einstein’s equations of general relativity with the Schrödinger equation that describes how the quantum wave function changes with space and time
  • the ‘no boundary’ proposal – in 1982 Stephen Hawking and James Hartle used ‘an elegant formulation of quantum  mechanics introduced by Richard Feynman to calculate the probability that the universe would be found to be in a particular state. What is interesting is that in this theory time is not important; time is a quality that emerges only when the universe is big enough for quantum effects to become negligible; the universe doesn’t technically have a beginning because the nearer you approach to it, time disappears, becoming part of four-dimensional space. This ‘no boundary’ state is the centrepiece of Hawking’s bestselling book A Brief History of Time (1988). According to Barrow, the Hartle-Hawking model was eventually shown to lead to a universe that was infinitely large and empty i.e. not our one.
The Hartle-Hawking no boundary Hartle and Hawking No-Boundary Proposal

The Hartle-Hawking no boundary Hartle and Hawking No-Boundary Proposal

  • In 1986 Barrow proposed a universe with a past but no beginning because all the paths through time and space would be very large closed loops
  • In 1997 Richard Gott and Li-Xin Li took the eternal inflationary universe postulated above and speculated that some of the branches loop back on themselves, giving birth to themselves
The self-creating universe of J.Richard Gott III and Li-Xin Li

The self-creating universe of J.Richard Gott III and Li-Xin Li

  • In 2001 Justin Khoury, Burt Ovrut, Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok proposed a variation of the cyclic universe which incorporated strong theory and they called the ‘ekpyrotic’ universe, epkyrotic denoting the fiery flame into which each universe plunges only to be born again in a big bang. The new idea they introduced is that two three-dimensional universes may approach each other by moving through the additional dimensions posited by strong theory. When they collide they set off another big bang. These 3-D universes are called ‘braneworlds’, short for membrane, because they will be very thin
  • If a universe existing in a ‘bubble’ in another dimension ‘close’ to ours had ever impacted on our universe, some calculations indicate it would leave marks in the cosmic background radiation, a stripey effect.
  • In 1998 Andy Albrecht, João Maguijo and Barrow explored what might have happened if the speed of light, the most famous of cosmological constants, had in fact decreased in the first few milliseconds after the bang? There is now an entire suite of theories known as ‘Varying Speed of Light’ cosmologies.
  • Modern ‘String Theory’ only functions if it assumes quite a few more dimensions than the three we are used to. In fact some string theories require there to be more than one dimension of time. If there are really ten or 11 dimensions then, possibly, the ‘constants’ all physicists have taken for granted are only partial aspects of constants which exist in higher dimensions. Possibly, they might change, effectively undermining all of physics.
  • The Lambda-CDM model is a cosmological model in which the universe contains three major components: 1. a cosmological constant denoted by Lambda (Greek Λ) and associated with dark energy; 2. the postulated cold dark matter (abbreviated CDM); 3. ordinary matter. It is frequently referred to as the standard model of Big Bang cosmology because it is the simplest model that provides a reasonably good account of the following properties of the cosmos:
    • the existence and structure of the cosmic microwave background
    • the large-scale structure in the distribution of galaxies
    • the abundances of hydrogen (including deuterium), helium, and lithium
    • the accelerating expansion of the universe observed in the light from distant galaxies and supernovae

He ends with a summary of our existing knowledge, and indicates the deep puzzles which remain, not least the true nature of the ‘dark matter’ which is required to make sense of the expanding universe model. And he ends the whole book with a pithy soundbite. Speaking about the ongoing acceptance of models which posit a ‘multiverse’, in which all manner of other universes may be in existence, but beyond the horizon of where can see, he says:

Copernicus taught us that our planet was not at the centre of the universe. Now we may have to accept that even our universe is not at the centre of the Universe.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

The Environment

Genetics and life

Human evolution

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

The Origin of the Universe by John D. Barrow (1994)

In the beginning, the universe was an inferno of radiation, too hot for any atoms to survive. In the first few minutes, it cooled enough for the nuclei of the lighter elements to form. Only millions of years later would the cosmos be cool enough for whole atoms to appear, followed soon by simple molecules, and after billions of years by the complex sequence of events that saw the condensation of material into stars and galaxies. Then, with the appearance of stable planetary environments, the complicated products of biochemistry were nurtured, by processes we still do not understand. (The Origin of the Universe, p.xi)

In the late 1980s and into the 1990s science writing became fashionable and popular. A new generation of science writers poured forth a wave of books popularising all aspects of science. The ones I remember fell into two broad categories, evolution and astrophysics. Authors such as Stephen Jay Gould and Edward O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins and Steve Jones (evolution and genetics) and Paul Davies, John Gribbin, John Polkinghorne and, most famously of all, Stephen Hawking, (cosmology and astrophysics) not only wrote best-selling books but cropped up as guests on radio shows and even presented their own TV series.

Early in the 1990s the literary agent John Brockman created a series titled Science Masters in which he commissioned experts across a wide range of the sciences to write short, jargon-free and maths-light introductions to their fields.

This is astrophysicist John D. Barrow’s contribution to the series, a short, clear and mind-blowing introduction to current theory about how our universe began.

The Origin of the Universe

Billions It is now thought the universe is about 13.7 billion years old, the solar system is 4.57 billion years old and the earth is 4.54 billion years old. The oldest surface rocks anywhere on earth are in northwestern Canada near the Great Slave Lake, and are 4.03 billion years. The oldest fossilised bacteria date from 3.48 billion years ago.

Visible universe The visible universe is the part of the universe which light has had time to cross and reach us. If the universe is indeed 13.7 billion years old, and nothing can travel faster than the speed of light (299,792,458 metres per second) then there is, in effect, a ‘horizon’ to what we can see. We can only see the part of the universe which is about 13.7 billion years old. Whether there is any universe beyond our light horizon, and what it looks like, is something we can only speculate about.

Steady state Until the early 20th century philosophers and scientists thought the universe was fixed, static and stable. Even Einstein put into his theory of relativity a factor he named ‘the cosmological constant’, which wasn’t strictly needed, solely in order to make the universe appear static and so conform to contemporary thinking. The idea of this constant was to counteract the attractive force of gravity, in order to ensure his steady state version of the universe didn’t collapse into a big crunch.

Alexander Friedmann It was a young mathematician, Alexander Friedmann, who looked closely at Einstein’s formulae and showed that the cosmological constant was not necessary, not if the universe was expanding; in this case, no hypothetical repelling force would be needed, just the sheer speed of outward expansion. Einstein eventually conceded that including the constant in the formulae of relativity had been a major mistake.

Edwin Hubble In what Barrow calls ‘the greatest discovery of twentieth century science’, the American astronomer Edwin Hubble in the 1920s discovered that distant galaxies are moving away from us, and the further away they are, the faster they are moving, which became known as Hubble’s Law. He established this by noticing the ‘red-shifting’ of frequencies denoting detectable elements in these galaxies i.e. their light frequencies had been altered downwards, as light (and sound and all waves are) when something is moving away from the observer.

Critical divide An argument against the steady-state theory of the universe is that, over time, the gravity of all the objects in it would pull everything together and it would all collapse into one massive clump. Only an initial throwing out of material could counter-act the affect of all that gravity.

So how fast is the universe expanding? Imagine a rate, x. Below that speed, the effect of gravity will eventually overcome the outward acceleration, the universe will slow down, stop expanding and start to contract. Significantly above this speed, x, and the universe would continue flying apart in all directions so quickly that gas clouds, stars, galaxies and planets would never be formed.

As far as we know, the actual acceleration of the universe hovers just around this rate, x – just fast enough to prevent the universe from collapsing, but not too fast for it to be impossible for matter to form. Just the right speed to create the kind of universe we see around us. The name for this threshold is the critical divide.

Starstuff Stars are condensations of matter large enough to create at their centre nuclear reactions. These reactions burn hydrogen into helium for a long, sedate period, as our sun is doing. At the end of their lives stars undergo a crisis, an explosive period of rapid change during which helium is transformed into carbon nitrogen, oxygen, silicon, phosphorus and many of the other, heavier elements. When the ailing star finally explodes as a supernova these elements disperse into space and ultimately find their way into clouds of gas which condense as planets.

Thus every plant, animal and person alive on earth is made out of chemical elements forged in the unthinkable heat of dying stars – which is what Joni Mitchell meant when she sang, ‘We are stardust’.

Heat death A theory that the universe will continue expanding and matter become so attenuated that there are no heat or dynamic inequalities left to fuel thermal reactions i.e. matter ends up smoothly spread throughout space with no reactions happening anywhere. Thermodynamic equilibrium reached at a universal very low temperature. The idea was formulated by William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, in the 1850s who extrapolated from Victorian knowledge of mechanics and heat. 170 years later, updated versions of heat death remain a viable theory for the very long-term future of the universe.

Steady state The ‘steady state’ theory of the universe was developed by astrophysicists Thomas Gold, Hermann Bondi and Fred Hoyle in 1948. They theorised that. although the universe appeared to be expanding it had always existed, the expansion being caused by a steady rate of creation of new matter. This theory was disproved in the mid-1960s by the confirmation of background radiation

Background radiation theorised In the 1940s George Gamow and assistants Alpher and Herman theorised that, if the universe began in a hot dense state way back, there should be evidence, namely a constant layer of background radiation everywhere which, they calculated, would be 5 degrees above absolute zero.

Background radiation proved In the 1960s researchers at Bell Laboratories, calibrating a sensitive radio antenna, noticed a constant background interference to their efforts which seemed to be coming from every direction of the sky. A team from Princeton interpreted this as the expected background radiation and measured it at 2.5 degrees Kelvin. It is called ‘cosmic microwave background radiation’ and is one of the strong proofs for the Big Bang theory. The uniformity of the background radiation was confirmed by observations from NASA’s Cosmic Background Explorer satellite in the early 1990s.

Empty universe There is very little material in the universe. If all the stars and galaxies in the universe were smoothed out into a sea of atoms, there would only be about one atom per cubic meter of space.

Inflation This is a theory developed in 1979 by theoretical physicist Alan Guth – the idea is that the universe didn’t arise from a singularity which exploded and grew at a steady state but instead, in the first milliseconds, underwent a period of hyper-growth, which then calmed back down to ‘normal’ expansion.

The theory has been elaborated and generated numerous variants but is widely accepted because it explains many aspects of the universe we see today – from its large-scale structure to the way it explains how minute quantum fluctuations in this initial microscopic inflationary region, once magnified to cosmic size, became the seeds for the growth of structure in the Universe.

The inflation is currently thought to have taken place from 10−36 seconds after the conjectured Big Bang singularity to sometime between 10−33 or 10−32 seconds after.

Chaotic inflationary universe Proposed by Soviet physicist Andrei Linde in 1983, this is the idea that multiple distinct sections of the very early universe might have experienced inflation at different rates and so have produced a kind of cluster of universes, like bubbles in a bubble bath, except that these bubbles would have to be at least nine billion light years in size in order to produce stable stars. Possibly the conditions in each of the universes created by chaotic inflation could be quite different.

Eternal inflation A logical extension of chaotic inflation is that you not only have multiple regions which undergo inflation at the same time, but you might have sub-regions which undergo inflation at different times – possibly one after the other, in other words maybe there never was a beginning, but this process of successive creations and hyper-inflations has been going on forever and is still going on but beyond our light horizon (which, as mentioned above, only reaches to about 13.7 billion light years away).

Time Is time a fixed and static quality which creates a kind of theatre, an external frame of reference, in which the events of the universe take place, as in the Newtonian view? Or, as per Einstein, is time itself part of the universe, inseparable from the stuff of the universe and can be bent and distorted by forces in the universe? This is why Einstein used the expression ‘spacetime’?

The quantum universe Right back at the very beginning, at 10−43 seconds, the size of the visible universe was smaller than its quantum wavelength — so its entire contents would have been subject to the uncertainty which is the characteristic of quantum physics.

Time is affected by a quantum view of the big bang because, when the universe was still shrunk to a microscopic size, the quantum uncertainty which applied to it might be interpreted as meaning there was no time. That time only ‘crystallised’ out as a separate ‘dimension’ once the universe had expanded to a size where quantum uncertainty no longer dictated.

Some critics of the big bang theory ask, ‘What was there before the big bang?’ to which exponents conventionally reply that there was no ‘before’. Time as we experience it ceased to exist and became part of the initial hyper-energy field.

This quantum interpretation suggests that there in fact was no ‘big bang’ because there was literally no time when it happened.

Traditional visualisations of the big bang show an inverted cone, at the top is the big universe we live in and as you go back in time it narrows to a point – the starting point. Imagine, instead, something more like a round-bottomed sack: there’s a general expansion upwards and outwards but if you penetrate back to the bottom of the sack there is no ‘start’ point.

This theory was most fully worked out by Stephen Hawking and James Hartle.

The Hartle-Hawking no boundary Hartle and Hawking No-Boundary Proposal

Wormholes The book ends with speculations about the possibility that ‘wormholes’ existed in the first few milliseconds, tubes connecting otherwise distant parts of the exploding ball of universe. I understood the pictures of these but couldn’t understand the problems in the quantum theory of the origin which they set out to solve.

And the final section emphasises that everything cosmologists work on relates to the visible universe. It may be that the special conditions of the visible universe which we know about, are only one set of starting conditions which apply to other areas of the universe beyond our knowledge or to other universes. We will never know.

Thoughts

Barrow is an extremely clear and patient explainer. He avoids formulae. Between his prose and the many illustrations I understood most of what he was trying to say, though a number of concepts eluded me.

But the ultimate thing that comes over is his scepticism. Barrow summarises recent attempts to define laws governing the conditions prevailing at the start of the universe by, briefly describing the theories of James Hartle and Stephen Hawking, Alex Vilenkin, and Roger Penrose. But he does so only to go on to emphasise that they are all ‘highly speculative’. They are ‘ideas for ideas’ (p.135).

By the end of the book you get the idea that a very great deal of cosmology is either speculative, or highly speculative. But then half way through he says it’s a distinguishing characteristic of physicists that they can’t stop tinkering – with data, with theories, with ideas and speculations.

So beyond the facts and then the details of the theories he describes, it is insight into this quality in the discipline itself, this restless exploration of new ideas and speculations relating to some of the hardest-to-think-about areas of human knowledge, which is the final flavour the reader is left with.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

The Environment

Genetics and life

Human evolution

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

%d bloggers like this: