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

Tau Zero by Poul Anderson (1970)

One of the most dazzling, mind-boggling and genuinely gripping novels I’ve ever read.

The story is set in the future, after the customary nuclear war which happens in so many futurestories. The twist on this one is that, after the radiation died down, the world’s powers agreed under something referred to as ‘the Covenant’ to put Sweden in charge, handing over all nuclear devices to a country big enough to manage them and keep the peace, but small enough not to have any global ambitions of her own.

Thus liberated from war, humanity – again, as in so many of these optimistic futurestories from the 1950s and 60s – has focused its efforts on space exploration using the handy new ‘ion drive’ which has been discovered, along with something called ‘Bussard engines’, helped along by elaborate ‘scoopfield webs’ to create ‘magnetohydrodynamic fields’.

Reaction mass entered the fire chamber. Thermonuclear generators energised the furious electric arcs that stripped those atoms down to ions; the magnetic fields that separated positive and negative particles; the forces that focused them into beams; the pulses that lashed them to ever higher velocities as they sped down the rings of the thrust tubes, until they emerged scarcely less fast than light itself.

The idea is that the webs are extended ‘nets’ a kilometre or so wide, which drag in all the hydrogen atoms which exist in low density in space, charging and channeling them towards the ‘drive’ which strips them to ions and thrusts them fiercely out the back of the ship – hence driving it forward.

Several voyages of exploration have already been undertaken to the nearest star systems in space ships which use these drives to travel near the speed of light, and fast-moving ‘probes’ have been sent to all the nearest star systems.

One of these probes reached the star system Centauri and now, acting on its information, a large spaceship, the Leonora Christine, is taking off on a journey to see if the third planet orbiting round Centauri really is habitable, as the probe suggests, and could be settled by ‘man’.

Einstein’s theory of relativity suggests that as any object approaches the speed of light, its experience of time slows down. The plan is for the Leonora Christine to accelerate for a couple of years towards near light speed, travel at that speed for a year, then slow down for a couple of years.

Five years there, whereupon they will either a) stay if the planet is habitable b) return, if it is not. Due to this time dilation effect those on the expedition will only age twelve years or so, while 43 or more years will pass back on earth (p.49).

(Time dilation is a key feature of Joe Haldeman’s novel, The Forever War, in which the protagonist keeps returning from tours of duty off-world to discover major changes in terrestrial society have taken place in his absence: it is, therefore, a form of one-way time travel.)

The Leonora Christine carries no fewer than fifty passengers, a cross-section of scientists, engineers, biologists and so on. Unlike any other spaceship I’ve read of it is large enough to house a gym, a theatre, a canteen and a swimming pool!

Two strands

Tau Zero is made up of two very different types of discourse. It is (apparently) a classic of ‘hard’ sci fi because not three pages go by without Anderson explaining in daunting technical detail the process workings of the ion drive, or the scoopnets, explaining the ratio of hydrogen atoms in space, or how the theory of relativity works, and so on. Not only are there sizeable chunks of uncompromising scientific information every few pages, but understanding them is key to the plot and narrative.

Starlike burned the hydrogen fusion, aft of the Bussard module that focused the electromagnetism which contained it. A titanic gas-laser effect aimed photons themselves in a beam whose reaction pushed the ship forward – and which would have vaporised any solid body it struck. The process was not 100 percent efficient. But most of the stray energy went to ionise the hydrogen which escaped nuclear combustion. These protons and electrons, together with the fusion products, were also hurled backward by the force fields, a gale of plasma adding its own increment of momentum. (p.40)

But at the same time, or regularly interspersed with the tech passages, are the passages describing the ‘human interest’ side of the journey, which is full of clichés and stereotypes, a kind of Peyton Place in space. To be more specific, the book was first published in instalments in 1967 and it has a very 1960s mindset. Anderson projects idealistic 1960s talk about ‘free love’ into a future in which adults have no moral qualms about ‘sleeping around’.

Before they leave, the novel opens with a pair of characters in a garden in Stockholm walking and having dinner and then the woman, Ingrid Lindgren, proposes to the man, Charles Reymont, that they become a couple. During all the adventures that follow, there is a continual exchanging of partners among the 25 men and 25 women on board, with little passages set aside for flirtations and guytalk about the girls or womentalk about the boys.

When a partnership ends one of the couple moves out, the other moves in with a room-mate of the same sex for a period, or immediately moves in with their new partner. It’s like wife-swapping in space. In a key moment of the plot, the ship’s resident astronomer, a short ugly anti-social and smelly man, becomes so depressed that he can no longer function. At which point Ingrid tactfully gets rid of the concerned captain and officers and… sleeps with him. So sex is deployed ‘tactically’ as a form of therapy.

Sex

He admired the sight of her. Unclad, she could never be called boyish. The curves of her breasts and flank were subtler than ordinary, but they were integral with the rest of her – not stuccoed on, as with too many women – and when she moved, they flowed. So did the light along her skin which had the hue of the hills around San Francisco Bay in their summer, and the light in her hair, which had the smell of every summer day that ever was on earth. (p.62)

Feminism

From a feminist perspective, it is striking how the 25 women aboard the ship are a) all scientists and experts in their fields b) are not passive sex objects, but very active in deciding who they want to partner with and why. One of the two strong characters in the narrative is a woman, Ingred Lindgren.

Characters

  • Captain Lars Telander
  • Ingrid Lindgren, steely disciplined first officer
  • Charles Reymont, takes over command when the ship hits crisis
  • Boris Fedoroff, Chief Engineer
  • Norbert Williams, American chemist
  • Chi-Yuen Ai-Ling, Planetologist
  • Emma Glassgold, molecular biologist
  • Jane Sadler, Canadian bio-technician
  • Machinist Johann Freiwald
  • Astronomer Elof Nilsson
  • Navigation Officer, Auguste Boudreau
  • Biosystems Chief Pereira
  • Margarita Jimenes
  • Iwamoto Tetsuo
  • Hussein Sadek
  • Yeshu ben-Zvi
  • Mohandas Chidambaran
  • Phra Takh
  • Kato M’Botu

Thus the ship’s progress proceeds smoothly, while the crew discuss decorating the canteen and common rooms, paint murals and have numerous affairs. Five years is a long time to pass in a confined ship. And meanwhile the effects of travelling ever closer to light speed create unusual effects and, to be honest, I was wondering what all the fuss was about this book.

When Leonora Christine attained a substantial fraction of light speed, its optical effects became clear to the unaided sight. Her velocity and that of the rays from a star added vectorially; the result was aberration. Except for whatever lay dead aft or ahead, the apparent position changed. Constellations grew lopsided, grew grotesque, and melted, as their members crawled across the dark. More and more, the stars thinned out behind the ship and crowded before her. (p.45)

Tau

Anderson gives us a couple of pages introducing the tau equation. This defines the ‘interdependence of space, time, matter, and energy’, If v is the velocity of the spaceship, and c the velocity of light, then tau equals the square root of 1 minus v² divided by c². In other words the closer the ship’s velocity, v, gets to the speed of light, c (186,00 miles per second), then v² divided by c² gets closer and closer to 1; therefore 1 minus something which is getting closer to 1 gets closer and closer to 0; and the square root of that number similarly approaches closer and closer to zero.

Or to put it another way, the closer tau gets to zero the faster the ship is flying, the greater its mass, and the slower the people inside it experience time, relative to the rest of the ‘static’ universe.

The plot kicks in

So the narrative trundles amiably along for the first 60 or so pages, interspersing passages of dauntingly technical exposition with the petty jealousies, love affairs and squabbles of the human characters, until…

The ship passes through an unanticipated gas cloud, just solid enough to possibly destroy her, at the very least do damage – due to the enormous speed she’s now flying at which effects her mass.

Captain Telander listens to his experts feverishly calculating what impact will mean but ultimately they have to batten down the hatches, make themselves secure and hope for the best, impact happening on page 75 of this 190-page long book.

In the event the ship survives but the technicians quickly discover that impact has knocked out the decelerating engines. Now, much worse, the technicians explain to the captain and the lead officers, First Officer Lindgren and the man responsible for crew discipline, Reymont, the terrible catch-22 they’re stuck in.

In order to investigate what’s happened to the decellerator engines, the technicians would have to go to the rear of the ship and investigate manually. Unfortunately, they would be vaporised in nano-seconds by the super-powerful ion drive if they got anywhere near it. Therefore, no-one can investigate what’s wrong with the decelerator engine until the accelerator engine is turned off.

But here’s the catch: the ship is travelling so close to the speed of light that, if they turned the accelerator engines off, the crew would all be killed in moments. Why? Because the ship is constantly being bombarded by hydrogen atoms found in small amounts throughout space. At the moment the accelerator engines and scoopfield webs are directing these atoms away from the ship and down into the ion drive. The ion drive protects the ship. The moment it is turned off, these hydrogen atoms will suddenly be bombarding the ship’s hull and, because of the speed it is going at, the effect will be to split the hydrogen atoms releasing gamma rays. The gamma rays will penetrate the hull and fry all the humans inside in moments.

Thus they cannot stop. They are doomed to continue accelerating forever or until they all die.

It is at this point that the way Anderson has introduced us to quite a few named characters, and shown them bickering, explaining abstruse theory, getting drunk and getting laid begins to show its benefits. Because the rest of the novel consists of a series of revelations about the logical implications of their plight and, if these were just explained in tech speak they would be pretty flat and dull: the drama, the grip of the novel derives from the way the matrix of characters he’s developed respond to each new revelation: getting drunk, feeling suicidal, determined to tough it out, relationships fall apart, new relationships are formed. In and of themselves these human interest passages are hardly Tolstoy, but they are vital for the novel’s success because they dramatise each new twist in the story and, as the characters discuss the implications, the time spent reading their dialogue and thoughts helps the reader, also, to process and assimilate the story’s mind-blowing logic.

A series of unfortunate incidents

Basically what happens is there is a series of four or five further revelations which confirm the astronauts in their plight, but expand it beyond their, or our, wildest imaginings.

At first the captain and engineer come up with a plan of sorts. They know, or suspect, that between galaxies the density of hydrogen atoms in the ether falls off. If they can motor beyond our galaxy they can find a place where the hydrogen density of space is so minute that they can afford to turn off the ion drive and repair the decelerator.

This is discussed in detail, with dialogue working through both the technical aspects and also the emotional consequences. Many of the crew had anticipated returning to earth to be reunited with at least some members of their family. Now that has gone for good. As has the original plan of exploring an earth-style planet.

And so we are given some mind-blowing descriptions of the ship deliberately accelerating in order to pass right through the galaxy and beyond. But unfortunately, the scientists then discover that the space between galaxies is not thin enough to protect them. Also there is another catch-22. In order to travel out of the galaxy they have had to increase speed. But now they are flying everso close to the speed of light, the risk posed by turning off the ion drive and exposing themselves to the stray hydrogen atoms in space has become greater. The faster they go in order to find space thin enough to stop in, the thinner that space has to become.

The astronomers now come to the conclusion that space is still to full of hydrogen atoms in the sectors which contain clusters of galaxies. They decide to increase the ship’s velocity even more in order not just to leave our galaxy, but to get clear of our entire family of galaxies. This they calculate, will take another year or so at present velocities.

Thus it is that the book moves forward by presenting a new problem, the scientists suggest a solution which involves travelling faster and further, the crew is told and slowly gets used to the idea, as do we, via various conversations and attitudes and emotional responses. But when that goal is attained, it turns out there is another problem, and so the tension and the narrative drive of the book is relentlessly ratcheted up.

And of course, the further they travel and the closer to light speed, the more the tau effect predicts that time slows down for them, or, to put it another way, time speeds up for the rest of the universe. Early on in the post-disaster section, the crew assemble to celebrate the fact that a hundred years have passed back on earth: everyone they knew is dead. It is a sombre assembly with heavy drinking, casual sex, melancholy thoughts.

But by the time we get to the bit where they have flown clear of the galaxy only to be disappointed to find that inter-galactic space is too full of hydrogen for them to stop, by this stage they realise that thousands of years have passed back on earth.

By the time they fly free of the entire cluster of galaxies, they know that tens of thousands of years have passed. And eventually, as their tau approaches closer and closer to zero, they realise that millions of years have passed (one million is passed n page 136).

For when they do eventually fly beyond our entire family of galaxies they encounter another problem which is discovering that empty space is now too dispersed to allow them to decelerate. Even if they turn off the ion drive and fix the decelerating engine, there isn’t enough matter in truly empty space for the engine to latch on to and use as fuel to slow them (p.147).

Thus they decide to continue onwards, letting their acceleration, and mass, increase until they find a part of space with just the right conditions.

The accessible mass of the whole galactic clan that was her goal proved inadequate to brake her velocity. Therefore she did not try. Instead, she used what she swallowed to drive forward all the faster. She traversed the domain of this second clan – with no attempt at manual control, simply spearing through a number of its member galaxies – in two days. On the far side, again into hollow space, she fell free. The stretch to the next attainable clan was on the order of another hundred million light-years. She made the passage in about a week. (p.151)

On they fly at incomprehensible speed, while various human interest stories unfurl between the ship’s crew, until they (and the reader) reach the blasé condition of feeling the ship’s hull rattle and hum for a few moments and a character will say, ‘There goes another galaxy’.

Now if this was a J.G. Ballard novel, they’d all have gone mad and started eating each other by now. Anderson’s take on human psychology is much more bland and optimistic. Some of the crew get a bit depressed, but nothing some casual sex, or a project to redecorate the canteen can’t fix.

The main ‘human’ part of the narrative describes the way the ship’s ‘constable’, Charles Reymont who we met back on the opening pages, takes effective control from the captain. Initially this is basic psychology, Charles realising it will help discipline best if the captain becomes an aloof figure beyond criticism or reproach while he, Charles, imposes discipline, structure and purpose – allotting the crew tasks and missions to perform to maintain their morale, and letting them hate or resent him for it if they will. But over time the captain really does lose the ability to decide anything and Charles becomes the ship’s dictator. This is complicated by the fact that he discovers the woman who had suggested they become a couple, Ingrid, in someone else’s bed though she swears she was only doing it for therapeutic purposes. They split up and Charles pairs off with the Chinese planetologist, Chi-Yuen Ai-Ling, leading to a number of sexy descriptions of her naked body. But Ingrid continues to hold a torch for him and he for her. That’s the spine of the ‘human interest’ part of the novel.

Hundreds of millions of years have passed and indeed, in the last 40 pages or so a character lets slips that it must be over a billion years since they left earth.

it’s at this stage that the book becomes truly visionary. For, after some delay and conferring with colleagues, the astronomer comes to the captain and Reymont and Lindgren to announce that… the universe itself is changing. The galaxies they are flying through no longer contain fit young stars. Increasingly what they’re seeing through their astronomical instruments (not the naked eye) is that the galaxies are made of low intensity red dwarfs.

The universe is running down.

So many billion years have passed – one character estimates one hundred billion years (p.170) that they have travelled far into ‘the future’ and are witnessing the end of the universe. The stars are going out and the actual space of the universe is contracting.

Anderson’s vision is based on the theory that the universe began in a big bang, has and will expand for billions of years but will eventually reach a stage where the initial blast of energy from the bang is so dispersed that it is countered by the cumulative gravity of all the matter in the universe – which will stop it expanding and make it slowly and then with ever-increasing speed, hurtle towards a ‘Big Crunch’ when all the matter in the universe returns to the primal singularity.

Face with this haunting, terrifying fact, the scientists again make calculations and act on a hunch. They guess that the singularity won’t actually become a minute particle but will be shrouded in ‘en enormous hydrogen envelope’ (p.175), the simplest chemical, and calculate that the ship will be flying so fast that it will survive the Big Crunch and live on to witness the creation of the next universe.

‘The outer part of that envelope may not be too hot or radiant or dense for us. Space will be small enough, though, that we can circle around and around the monobloc as a kind of satellite. When it blows up and space starts to expand again, we’ll spiral out ourselves.’ (Reymont, p.175)

And this is what happens. Anderson gives a mind bogging description of the ship reaching such an infinitesimal value of tau that it flies right through the Big Crunch and out into the new universe which explodes outwards (pp.181-3).

Indeed it is travelling so fast, and time outside is moving so fast, that they can chose how many billions of years into the history of the new universe they want to stop (p.184). A quick calculation suggests that it took about 10 billion years for a plenty like earth to come into being and establish the conditions for life to evolve, and so they calculate their deceleration to take place that far into the future of this new universe.

Epilogue

And this is what they do, and the last few pages cut to Reymont and Ingrid, the lovers we met in the opening pages falling dreamily in love, now lying under a tree on a planet which has an earth-like atmosphere but blue vegetation, three moons and all sorts of weird fauna and flora, as they plan their lives together (pp.188-190)

We left plausibility behind a long time ago. Instead the book turns into an absolutely gripping rollercoaster of a ride, one of the most genuinely mind-blowing and gripping stories I’ve ever read. What a trip!


Style

the foregoing summary may give the impression the story is told in language as clear as an instruction manual, but this would be wrong.

Putting the plot to one side, one of the most striking features of Tau Zero is its prose style – an odd and ungainly variant of standard English which makes you pause on every page.

Leonora Christine was nearing the third year of her journey, or the tenth year as the stars counted time, when grief came upon her. (p.63)

Anderson was born in America (in 1926) but his mother took him as a boy to live in Denmark where she’d originally come from, until the outbreak of war forced them to return. For this or the general fact of growing up in an immigrant Scandinavian family, Anderson’s English is oddly stilted and phrased. It often sounds like it’s been translated from a Norse saga.

She gave him cheerful greeting as he entered. (p.52)

They would live out their lives, and belike their children and grandchildren too (p.53)

He stood moveless (p.58)

Nor would he have stopped to dress, had he been abed. (p.64)

Telander must perforce smile a bit as he went out the door. (p.69)

Fedoroff spoke. His words fell contemptuous. (p.80)

He clapped the navigator’s back in friendly wise. (p.159)

She rested elbow on head, forehead on hand. (p.161)

Every pages has sentences containing odd kinks away from natural English. As a small example it’s typified by the way Anderson refers throughout the story not to the ship’s ‘crew’, but to its folk. Another consistent quirk is the way people don’t experience emotions or psychological states, these, in the form of abstract nouns, come over them.

Soberness had come upon her. (p.100)

Dismay sprang forth on Williams. (p.105)

Anger still upbore the biologist. (p.106)

Dismay shivered in her. (p.116)

Hardness fell from him. (p.125)

Weight grabbed at Reymont. (.167)

Sometimes he achieves a kind of incongruous poetry by accident.

Footsteps thudded in the mumble of energies. (p.70)

Ingrid Lindgren regarded him for a time that shivered. (p.71)

The ship jeered at him in her tone of distant lightnings. (p.84)

Sometimes it makes the already challenging technical explanations just that little bit more impenetrable.

Then again, maybe this slightly alien English helps to create a sense of mild dislocation which is not inappropriate for a science fiction story, especially one which takes us right to the edge of the universe and then beyond!


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1957 The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle – a vast cloud of gas heads into the solar system, blocking out heat and light from the sun with cataclysmic consequences on Earth, until a small band of maverick astronomers discovers that the cloud contains intelligence and can be communicated with
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1963 Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle French journalist Ulysse Mérou accompanies Professor Antelle on a two-year space flight to the star Betelgeuse, where they land on an earth-like plane to discover that humans and apes have evolved here, but the apes are the intelligent, technology-controlling species while the humans are mute beasts
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines, and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War has become an authoritarian state. The story concerns popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world in which he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Forever War by Joe Haldeman The story of William Mandella who is recruited into special forces fighting the Taurans, a hostile species who attack Earth outposts, successive tours of duty requiring interstellar journeys during which centuries pass on Earth, so that each of his return visits to the home planet show us society’s massive transformations over the course of the thousand years the war lasts.

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – burnt-out cyberspace cowboy Case is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero, while the daughter of a Japanese ganster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative history Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population under control

Atomic by Jim Baggott (2009)

This is a brilliantly panoramic, thrilling and terrifying book.

The subtitle of this book is ‘The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb 1939-49‘ and it delivers exactly what it says on the tin. At nearly 500 pages Atomic is a very thorough account of its subject – the race to develop a workable atomic bomb between the main warring nations of World War Two, America, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia –  with the additional assets of a 22-page timeline, a 20-page list of key characters, 18 pages of notes and sources and a 6-page bibliography.

A cast of thousands

The need for a list of key characters is an indication of one of the main learnings from the book: it took a lot of people to convert theoretical physics into battlefield nuclear weapons. Every aspect of it came from theories and speculations published in numerous journals, and then from experiments devised by scores of teams of scientists working around the industrialised world, publishing results, meeting at conferences or informally, comparing and discussing and debating and trying again.

Having just read The Perfect Theory by Pedro Ferreira, a ‘biography’ of the theory of relativity, I had gotten used to the enormous number of teams and groups and institutes and university faculties involved in science – or this area of science – each containing numerous individual scientists, who collaborated and competed to devise, work through and test new theories relating to Einstein’s famous theory.

Baggott’s tale gives the same sense of a cast of hundreds of scientists – it feels like we are introduced to two or three new characters on every page, which can make it quite difficult to keep up. But whereas progress on the theory of relativity took place at a leisurely pace over the past 100 years, the opposite is true of the development of The Bomb.

This was kick-started when a research paper showing that nuclear fission of uranium might be possible was published in 1939, just as the world was on the brink of war (hence the start date for this book). From that point the story progresses at an increasing pace, dominated by a Great Fear – fear that the Nazis would develop The Bomb first and use it without any scruples to devastate Europe.

The first three parts of the book follow the way the two warring parties – the Allies and the Nazis – assembled their teams from civilian physicists, mathematicians and chemists at various institutions, bringing them together into teams which were assembled and worked with increasing franticness, as the Second World War became deeper and darker.

If the you thought the blizzard of names of theoretical and experimental physicists, mathematicians, chemists and so on in the first part was a bit confusing, this is as nothing compared to the tsunami of names of Army administrators, security chiefs, civil servants, bureaucrats and politicians who are roped in to create and administer the facilities which were established to research and build, first a nuclear reactor, then a nuclear bomb.

Baggott unfolds the story with a kind of unflinching factual pace which is extremely gripping. Each chapter is divided into sections, often only a page long, which explain contemporaneous events at research bases in Chicago, out in the desert at Los Alamos, in Britain, in German research centres, and among Stalin’s harassed scientific community. Each one of these narratives is fascinating, but intercutting them like this creates an almost filming effect of cutting from one exciting scene to another. Baggott’s prose is spare and effective, almost like good thriller writing.

The nuclear spies

And indeed the book strays into actual thriller territory because interwoven with the gripping accounts of the British, Russian, German and American scientists, and their respective military and political masters, is the story of the nuclear spies. I read Paul Simpson’s A Brief History of The Spy a few months ago and it gives good accounts of the activities of Soviet spies Klaus Fuchs, David Greengrass, Theodore Hall, as well as the Rosenbergs. But the story of their spying and the huge amounts of top secret information they handed over to the Russians is so much more intense and exciting when it is situated in the broader story of the nail-biting scientific, chemical, logistical and political races to build The Bomb.

German failure

As everyone knows, the Nazis were not able to construct a functioning bomb before they were militarily defeated in May 1945. But it wasn’t for want of trying, and the main impression from the book was the sense of vicarious horror from the thought of what they’d done if they had made a breakthrough in the final desperate months of spring 1945. London wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be here.

Baggott’s account of the German bomb is fascinating in numerous ways. Basically, once the leadership were told it wouldn’t be ready in the next few years, they didn’t make it a priority. Baggott follows the end of the war with a chapter on hos most of the German nuclear scientists were flown to England and interned in a farm outside Cambridge which was bugged. Their conversations were recorded in which they were at first smugly confident that they were being detained because they were so far in advance of the Allies. Thus they were all shocked when they heard the Allies had dropped an atom bomb on Japan in August 1945. At which point they began to develop a new line, one much promoted by German historians since, which is that they could have developed a bomb if they’d wanted to, but had morals and principles and so did all they could to undermine, stall and sabotage the Nazi attempt to build an A bomb.

They were in fact ‘good Germans’ who always hated the Nazis. Baggott treats this claim with the contempt it deserves.

Summary of the science

The neutron was discovered in 1932, giving a clearer picture of what atoms are made of i.e. a nucleus with at least one proton (with a positive electric charge) balancing at least one electron (with a negative charge) in orbit around it. Heavier elements have more than one neutron and electron (always the same number) as well as an increasing number of neutrons which give weight but have no electric charge. Hence the periodic table lists the elements in order of heaviness, starting with hydrogen with one proton and going all the way to organesson, with its 118 protons. Ernest Lawrence in California invented the cyclotron, a device for smashing sub-atomic particles into nuclei to see what happened. In 1934 Enrico Fermi’s team in Italy set out to bombard the nuclei of every known element with neutrons, starting with hydrogen (1) and going through the entire periodic table.

The assumption was that, by bombarding elements with neutrons they would dislodge one or two protons in each nucleus and ‘shift’ the element down the periodic table by one or two places. When the team came to bombard one of the heaviest elements, uranium, they were amazed to discover that the process seemed to produce barium, about half the weight of uranium. The bombardment process seemed to blast uranium nuclei in half. Physics theory, influenced by Einstein, suggested that a) this breakdown would result in the release of energy b) some of the neutrons within the uranium nucleus would not be required by the barium atoms and would themselves shoot out to hit other uranium nuclei, and so on.

  • The process would create a chain reaction.
  • Although the collapse of each individual atom would release a minuscule amount of energy, the number of atoms in such a dense element suggested a theoretically amazing release of energy. If every nucleus of uranium in a 1 kilogram lump was split in half, it would release the same energy as 22,000 tons of TNT explosive.

Otto Frisch, an Austrian Jewish physicist who had fled to Niels Bohr’s lab in Copenhagen after the Nazis came to power, heard about all this from his long-time collaborator, and aunt, Lise Meitner, who was with the German team replicating Fermi’s results. He told Bohr about the discovery. Frisch named it nuclear fission.

In early 1939 papers were published in a German science journal and Nature, while Bohr himself travelled to a conference in America. In the spring of that year fission research groups sprang up around the scientific world. In America Bohr realised anomalies in the experimental results were caused by the fact that uranium comes in two isotopes, U-235 and U-238. The numbers derive from the total number of neutrons and protons in an atom: U-238 has 92 protons and 146 neutrons; U-235 has three fewer neutrons. Slowly evidence emerged that it is the U-235 which breaks down. But it is much rarer than the stable U-238 and difficult to extract and purify. In March 1939 a French team summarised the evidence for nuclear chain reactions in a paper in Nature, specifying the number of particles released by disintegrated nuclei.

All the physicists involved realised that the massive release of energy implied by the experiments could theoretically be used to create an explosive device vastly more powerful than anything then existing. And so did the press. Newspaper articles began appearing about a ‘superbomb’. In April the head of physics at the German Reich Research Council assembled a group devoted to fission research, named the Uranverein, calling for the ban of all uranium exports, and for it to be stockpiled. British MP Winston Churchill asked a friend, Oxford physicist Frederick Lindemann, to prepare a report on the feasibility of a fission bomb. Soviet scientists replicated the results of their western colleagues but didn’t bring the issue to the attention of the authorities – yet. Three Hungarian physicists who were exiles from the Nazis in America grasped the military importance of the discoveries. They approached Einstein and persuaded him to write a warning letter to President Roosevelt, which was written in August 1939 though not delivered to the president until October. Meanwhile the Germans invaded Poland on 1 September and war in Europe began. At this point the Nazis approached the leading theoretical physicist in Germany, Werner Heisenberg, and he agreed to head the Uranverein, leading German research into an atomic bomb until the end of the war.

And so the race to build the first atomic bomb began! The major challenges were to:

  • isolate enough of the unstable isotope U-235 to sustain a chain reaction
  • to kick start the chain reaction somehow, not with the elaborate apparatus available in a lab, but with something which could be packed inside a contain (a bomb) and then triggered somehow
  • a material which could ‘damp’ the process enough so that it could be controlled in experimental conditions

From the start there was debate over the damping material, with the two strongest contenders being graphite – but it turned out to be difficult to get graphite which was pure enough – or ‘heavy water’, water produced with a heavier isotope of hydrogen, deuterium. Only one chemical plant in all of Europe produced heavy water, a fertiliser factory in Norway. The Germans invaded Norway in April 1940 and a spin-off was the ability to commandeer regular supplies from this factory. That is why the factory, and its shipments of heavy water, were targeted for the commando raid and then air raids dramatised in the war movie, The Heroes of Telemark. (Baggott gives a thorough and gripping account of the true, more complex, more terrifying story of the raids.)

Learnings

I never realised that:

  • In the end the Americans built the bomb because they were the only ones with enough resources. Although Hitler and Stalin were briefed about the potential, their scientists told them it would be three or four years before a workable bomb could be made and they both had more pressing concerns. The British had the know-how but not the money or resources. There is a kind of historical inevitability to America being the first to build a bomb.
  • But I never realised there were quite so many communist sympathisers in American society and that so many of them slipped across the line into passing information and/or secrets to the Soviets. The Manhattan Project was riddled with Soviet spies.
  • And I never knew that J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man put in charge of the facilities at Los Alamos and therefore widely known as the ‘father’ of the atom bomb, was himself was such a dubious character, from the security point of view. Well-known for his left-wing sympathies, attending meetings and donating money to crypto-communist causes, he was good friends with communist party members and was approached at least once by Soviet agents to pass on information about the bomb project. No wonder elements in the Army and the FBI wanted him banned from the very project which he was in fact running.

Hiroshima

The first three parts of the book follow in considerable detail the story from the crucial discoveries on the eve of the war, and then interweaves developments in Britain, America and the USSR up until the detonation of the two A-bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945.

  • I was shocked all over again to read the idea that, on the eve of the first so-called Trinity test, the scientists weren’t completely confident that the chain reaction might not spread to the nitrogen in the atmosphere and set the air on fire.
  • I was dazzled by the casual way military planners came up with a short list of cities to hit with the bombs. The historic and (by all accounts) picturesque city of Kyoto was on the list but it was decided it would be a cultural crime to incinerate it. Also US Secretary of War Henry Stimson had gone there on his honeymoon, so it was removed from the list. Thus, in this new age, were the fates, the lives and agonising deaths, of hundreds of thousands of civilians decided.
  • I never knew they only did one test – the Trinity test – before Hiroshima. So little preparation and knowledge.

The justification for the use of the bomb has caused argument from that day to this. Some have argued that the Japanese were on the verge of surrendering, though the evidence presented in Baggott’s account militates against this interpretation. My own view is based on two axioms: 1. the limits of human reason 2. a moral theory of complementarity.

Limits of reason When I was a young man I was very influenced by the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Life is absurd and the absurdity is caused by the ludicrous mismatch between human claims and hopes of Reason and Justice and Freedom and all these other high-sounding words – and the chaotic shambles which people have made of the world, starting with the inability of most people to begin to live their own lives according to Reason and Logic.

People smoke too much, drink too much, eat too much, marry the wrong person, drive cars too fast, take the wrong jobs, make the wrong decisions, jump off bridges, declare war. We in the UK have just voted for Brexit and Donald Trump is about to become US President. Rational? The bigger picture is that we are destroying the earth through our pollution and wastefulness, and global warming may end up destroying our current civilisation.

Given all these obvious facts about human beings, I don’t see how anyone can accuse us of being rational and logical.

But in part this is because we evolved to live in small packs or groups or tribes, and to deal with fairly simple situations in small groups. Ever since the Neolithic revolution and the birth of agriculture led to stratified and much larger societies and set us on the path to ‘civilisation’, we have increasingly found ourselves in complex situations where there is no one obviously ‘correct’ choice or path; where the notion of a binary choice between Good and Evil breaks down. Most of the decisions I’ve taken personally and professionally aren’t covered by so-called ‘morality’ or ‘moral philosophy’, they present themselves – and I make the decisions – based purely on practical outcomes.

Complementarity Early in his account Baggott explains Niels Bohr’s insight into quantum physics, the way of ‘seeing’ fundamental particles which changed the way educated people think about ‘reality’ and won him a Nobel Prize.

In the 1920s it became clear that electrons, one of the handful of sub-atomic particles, behave like waves and like particles at the same time. In Newton’s world a thing is a thing, self-identical and consistent. In quantum physics this fixed attitude has to be abandoned because ‘reality’ just doesn’t seem to be like that. Eventually, the researchers arrived a notion of complementarity i.e. that we just have to accept that electrons could be particles and waves at the same time depending on how you chose to measure them. (I understand other elements of quantum theory also prove that particles can be in two places at the same time). Conceivably, there are other ways of measuring them which we don’t know about yet. Possibly the incompatible behaviour can be reconciled at some ‘deeper’ level of theory and understanding but, despite nearly a century of trying, nobody has come up with a grand unifying theory which does that.

Meanwhile we have to work with reality in contradictory bits and fragments, according to different theories which fit, or seem to fit, to explain, the particular phenomena under investigation: Newtonian mechanics for most ordinary scale phenomena; Einstein’s relativity at the extremes of scale, black holes and gravity where Newton’s theory breaks down; and quantum theory to explain the perplexing nature of sub-atomic ‘reality’.

In the same way I’d like to suggest that everyday human morality is itself limited in its application. In extreme situations it frays and breaks. Common or garden morality suggests there is one ‘reality’ in which readily identifiable ideas of Good and Bad always and everywhere apply. But delve only a little deeper – consider the decisions you actually have to make, in your real life – and you quickly realise that there are many situations and decisions you have to make about situations which aren’t simple, where none of the alternatives are black and white, where you have to feel your way to a solution often based in gut instinct.

A major part of the problem may be that you are trying to reconcile not two points of view within one system, but two or more incompatible ways of looking at the world – just like the three worldviews of theoretical physics.

The Hiroshima decision

Thus – with one part of my mind I am appalled off the scale by the thought of a hideous, searing, radioactive death appearing in the middle of your city for no reason without any warning, vaporising half the population and burning the other half to shreds, men, women and little children, the old and babies, all indiscriminately evaporated or burned alive. I am at one with John Hersey’s terrifying account, I am with CND, I am against this anti-human abomination.

But with another part of the calculating predatory brain I can assess the arguments which President Truman had to weigh up. Using the A-bomb would:

  1. End a war which had dragged on too long.
  2. Save scores of thousands of American lives, an argument bolstered as evidence mounted that the Japanese were mobilising for a fanatical defence to the death of their home islands. I didn’;t know that the invasion of the southern island of Japan was scheduled for December 1945 and the invasion of the main island and advance on Tokyo was provisionally set to start in march 1946. Given that it took the Allies a year to advance from Normandy to Berlin, this suggests a scenario where the war could have dragged on well into 1947, with the awesome destruction of the entire Japanese infrastructure through firebombing and house to house fighting as well, of course, of vast casualties, Japanese and American.
  3. As the US commander of strategic air operations against Japan, General Curtis LeMay pointed out, America had been waging a devastating campaign of firebombing against Japanese cities for months. According to one calculation some two-and-a-half million Japanese had been killed in these air attacks to date. He couldn’t see why people got so upset about the atom bombs.

Again, I was amazed at the intransigence of the Japanese military. Baggott reports the cabinet meetings attended by the Japanese Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and the heads of the Army and Navy, where the latter refused to surrender even after the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. In fact, when the Emperor finally overruled his generals and issued an order to surrender, the generals promptly launched a military coup and tried to confiscate the Emperor’s recorded message ordering the surrender before it could be broadcast. An indication of the fanaticism American troops would have faced if a traditional invasion had gone ahead.

The Cold War

And the other reason for using the bombs was to prepare for after the war, specifically to tell the Soviet Union who was boss. Roosevelt had asked Stalin to join the war on Japan and this he did in August, making a request to invade the north island (the Russians being notoriously less concerned about their own troop losses than the Allies). the book is fascinating on how Stalin ordered an invasion then three days later backed off, leaving all Japan to America. But this kind of brinkmanship and uneasiness which had appeared at Yalta became more and more the dominant issue of world politics once the war was won, and once the USSR began to put in place mini-me repressive communist regimes across Eastern Europe.

Baggott follows the story through the Berlin Airlift of 1949 and the outbreak of the Korean War (June 1950), while he describes the ‘second physics war’ i.e. the Russian push to build an atomic reactor and then a bomb to rival America’s. In this the Russians were hugely helped by the Allied spies who, ironically, now Soviet brutality was a bit more obvious to the world, began to have second thoughts. In fact Klaus Fuchs, the most important conduit of atomic secrets to the Russians, eventually confessed his role.

Baggott’s account in fact goes up to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 and it is so grippingly, thrillingly written I wished it had gone right up to the fall of the Soviet Union. Maybe he’ll write a sequel which covers the Cold War. Then again, most of the scientific innovation had been achieved and the basic principles established; now it was a question of engineering, of improving designs and outcomes. Of building bigger and better bombs and more and more of them.

The last section contains a running thread about the attempts by some of the scientists and politicians to prevent nuclear proliferation, and explains in detail why they came to nothing. The reason was the unavoidable new superpower rivalry between America and Russia, the geopolitical dynamic of mutually assured destruction which dominated the world for the next 45 years (until the fall of the USSR).

A new era in human history was inaugurated in which ‘traditional’ morality was drained of meaning. Or to put it another way (as I’ve suggested above) in which the traditional morality which just about makes sense in large complex societies, reached its limits, frayed and broke.

The nuclear era exposed the limitations of not only human morality but of human reason itself, showing that incompatible systems of values could apply to the same phenomena, in which nuclear truths could be good and evil, vital and obscene, at the same time. An era in which all attempts at rational thought about weapons of mass destruction seemed to lead only to inescapable paradox and absurdity.


Credit

Atomic: The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb 1939-49 by Jim Baggott was published in 2009 by Icon Books. All quotes and references are to the 2015 Icon Books paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

The Environment

Genetics and life

Human evolution

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

%d bloggers like this: