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

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

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

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

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

The Origin of the Universe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Related links

Reviews of other science books


The environment

Human evolution

Genetics and life

  • What Is Life? How Chemistry Becomes Biology by Addy Pross (2012)
  • The Diversity of Life by Edward O. Wilson (1992)
  • The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)


Particle physics


Conflict, Time, Photography @ Tate Modern

A major exhibition of art photography about war and warzones, what’s not to like? The images come ready-made with all sorts of poignancies and pathos.

To mix it up the curators tried something radically different from the predictable chronological order, namely arranging the images by the length of time after the event they are addressing took place.

Hence the importance of time in the title, and hence the rooms are titled ‘Moments later’, ‘days, weeks later’, ‘Months later’, ‘1-10 years later’, all the way up to ’85-100 years later’.

An overabundance

There are a lot of photographers and a lot of wars. Helps to have a good working knowledge of the conflicts in the ‘century of atrocity’, Mankind’s most shameful century so far (but who knows what’s round the corner?) though there were some displays of work from select wars of the 19th century:

(Nothing from the Boer War or any of the small colonial wars the European nations waged against native peoples during the ‘Belle Epoque’….)

Even so the information panels next to each set of images are packed with facts about the individual photographers (almost none of whom I’d heard of before) and then about their ‘project’ or relationship to the subject matter, and then about the nature of the conflict or war in question, often itself dense with historical and political complications — An awful lot of information to take in.

I paid assiduous attention to the first third, skimmed the next third and, I admit, was too full of facts & fights by the end to do anything except just react to the pics…

The surfeit of material was epitomised by the images around Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The very first images in the show come under the heading ‘Seconds after’ and were a few photos taken ‘seconds after’ the Hiroshima bomb exploded, by a Japanese man working in a lab nearby, who ran to the window in time to catch the growing mushroom cloud. (In fact, theyre not particularly good photos, and don’t look anything like the famous mushroom cloud.)

But about half way through the show there was a mass of images on the subject: a display case containing 13 or so photo-books of images from various sources, by numerous photographers, above which was hung a selection of photos each by different photographers, and then another wall of images from ‘one of the most important photo books of the century’, The Map (1965) by Kikuji Kawada. I found it difficult to react to any but the clearest and most striking images…

Shomei Tomatsu, Steel Helmut with Skull Bone Fused by Atomic Bomb, Nagasaki 1963 © Shomei Tomatsu - interface. Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo

Shomei Tomatsu, Steel Helmut with Skull Bone Fused by Atomic Bomb, Nagasaki 1963
© Shomei Tomatsu – interface. Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo

There were some familiar and iconic images of war, namely Richard Peters’ shots from Dresden just days after the fateful air raid, or Don McCullin’s combat-shocked American GI.

Don McCullin, Shell Shocked US Marine, Vietnam, Hue 1968 © Don McCullin

Don McCullin, Shell Shocked US Marine, Vietnam, Hue 1968 © Don McCullin

It is photography’s bad luck to have become so easily assimilable. We are surrounded by images and will be in ever-increasing amounts as the internet tightens its grip on our lives. Possibly, what were once termed ‘raw’ and ‘graphic’ images had an impact at some nominal golden age in the past, maybe in the 1960s and 1970s when this kind of photo-journalism first came in. But we’ve had fifty years of ‘graphic’ images of wars, plus the steady stream of jihadist terror since 9/11, as well as a brutal new level of graphic violence in war movies and TV (Saving Private Ryan (1998), Band of Brothers (2001)) – all of which, I think, has diminished their aesthetic, and moral, impact.

Therefore, some of the other types of engagement, some of the more tangential approaches to the subject matter on display yielded a different sort of feeling, less at risk from horror fatigue. For example, the series of large colour photos of locations where World War I deserters were executed, located and photographed by Chloe Dewe Mathews.

Chloe Dewe Mathews, Vebranden-Molen, West-Vlaanderen 2013. Soldat Ahmed ben Mohammed el Yadjizy. Soldat Ali ben Ahmed ben Frej ben Khelil. Soldat Hassen ben Ali ben Guerra el Amolani. Soldat Mohammed Ould Mohammed ben Ahmed. 17:00 / 15.12.1914  © Chloe Dewe Mathews

Chloe Dewe Mathews, Vebranden-Molen, West-Vlaanderen 2013. Soldat Ahmed ben Mohammed el Yadjizy. Soldat Ali ben Ahmed ben Frej ben Khelil. Soldat Hassen ben Ali ben Guerra el Amolani. Soldat Mohammed Ould Mohammed ben Ahmed. 17:00 / 15.12.1914
© Chloe Dewe Mathews


Like everyone these days, I also take photographs (showcased on my walking blog) and from doing it myself I’ve evolved a favourite style or approach and way of seeing: I don’t do people (they move, they want permission) and prefer to do either natural features or buildings framed square-on, with space around the subject so you see it in its entirety and, ideally, warm sunshine on a clear day, which helps pick out the detail and gives contrast and depth to an image.

That background explains why I liked what I liked in this show.

1. Simon Norfolk made a portfolio of images titled Chronotopia of Afghanistan. The name refers to the way this wretched country has endured 30 years of almost continuous fighting and therefore why the buildings and landscape contain multiple layers of devastation. Norfolk’s images are big and bright and clear.

Simon Norfolk, Bullet-scarred apartment building, 2003. © Simon Norfolk

Simon Norfolk, Bullet-scarred apartment building, 2003. © Simon Norfolk

2. Jane and Louise Wilson I came across their photos at Tate Britain’s hit-and-miss Ruin Lust exhibition. Here again they had three of their enormous black-and-white photos of the Nazis concrete bunkers and defence system along the coast of France – the Nazi subject matter is totally familiar (no reading up required), the buildings are starkly charismatic, they are framed in the classic way I love.

3. Sophie Ristelhüber is awarded an entire room full of really big photos showing the impact of the First Gulf War on the desert landscape in Kuwait and southern Iraq in 1991, titled Fait. Enormous and in glossy colour, like Norfolk’s, they are consistently high quality and imaginative – each image carefully composed and framed. Very powerful.

4. Ursula Schulz-Dornberg was represented by a sequence of black and white photos of the bare, abandoned remains of the Kurchatov nuclear test site where over 480 detonations took place, photographed 22 years after the final test, in 2012.

There’s a lot more from conflicts in Africa (Congo, Namibia – nothing from Biafra), South America, China, the Armenian genocide, the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, Holocaust survivors and so on, a relentless and depressing testimony to humanity’s inability to live in peace.

Powerful though many of these images are, there is always something clinical and detached about a glossily printed static image hanging on a white gallery wall. I think the complex emotional aftermath and meditation about conflicts and wars is done better by other arts, music sometimes, but poetry…. there’s a case for arguing that poetry commemorates the dead best of all.

Sophie Ristelhüber’s photos, in particular, with their wrecks in the desert, reminded me of Keith Douglas’s poem from the Desert campaign in World War Two.

Vergissmeinnicht by Keith Douglas (1942)

Three weeks gone and the combatants gone
returning over the nightmare ground
we found the place again, and found
the soldier sprawling in the sun.

The frowning barrel of his gun
overshadowing. As we came on
that day, he hit my tank with one
like the entry of a demon.

Look. Here in the gunpit spoil
the dishonoured picture of his girl
who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht.
in a copybook gothic script.

We see him almost with content,
abased, and seeming to have paid
and mocked at by his own equipment
that’s hard and good when he’s decayed.

But she would weep to see today
how on his skin the swart flies move;
the dust upon the paper eye
and the burst stomach like a cave.

For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart.
And death who had the soldier singled
has done the lover mortal hurt.

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