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Understanding Cosmology    Editors Scientific American order for
Understanding Cosmology
by Scientific American
Order:  USA  Can
Warner, 2002 (2002)
* * *   Reviewed by Wesley Williamson

I remember, many many years ago, I came across a book on cosmology by the then famous English physicist and popularizer of science, Sir Arthur Eddington. He tried very hard to explain Einstein's comparatively recent Relativity Theory. In fact, he explained it so well that I almost believed I understood it. As I came to realise later, I didn't, of course, because I didn't and couldn't possibly understand the mathematical formulae which in essence were the theory. In point of fact, only a very few people in the world could.

Despite this, Relativity Theory and its derivatives are now received without thought or question as accepted fact by almost all (laypersons as well as specialists in the field) for the very simple reason that it works. At the present day, modern cosmology, particularly because of its interdependence upon Quantum Theory, strikes me as relativity theory did then. It stretches my capacity for belief to its outer limits, for exactly the same reasons. I have to trust in higher mathematics which I cannot possibly understand. And, vitally important, I have to take on blind faith the ability of various might-as-well-be anonymous scientists to interpret the mathematics correctly - while recognising that scientists, just like us ordinary folk, can be arrogant, competitive, stubborn, sneaky and even sometimes just plain commonsense stupid.

That is one good reason why I welcome a volume such as this. The editors of Scientific American have been successful in selecting a coherent collection of essays by a variety of articulate scientists, covering the different aspects of the field from their sometimes conflicting but always fascinating points of view. Subjects range from a review of cosmological theory over the last fifty years (covering the Big Bang and the subsequent evolution of the Universe) to the steadily increasing esoterica needed to be imagined to explain the mathematics necessary to account for the limitations uncovered in the immediately preceding theories.

I would caution any who are not speculative fiction aficionados to approach these later essays with extreme caution. You will encounter concepts which may stretch your imagination to the breaking point. Can you possibly believe in dark energy, which is totally invisible and unmeasurable but fills the Universe. and appears to be the opposite of gravity (anti-gravity?) since it is causing the expansion of the Universe to accelerate out of control? Or quantum cosmology, which envisages a universe where trillions of 'particles pop in and out of existence, history becomes probability, and an infinite number of possible scenarios play out simultaneously in galaxies that are infinite in number'? How about inflation theory, which leads to a belief that the Big Bang spawned all sorts of bubble universes, one of which just happens to be ours? All this, of course, is just grist to the mill for us SF fans.

Surprisingly, this is not a difficult book to read and enjoy, even for the uninstructed layman. The rationales for the sometimes difficult concepts are carefully spelled out, with some very effective graphics. I cerainly recommend it without reservation to anyone with the slightest interest in the subject, or even to the just casually curious. Need I say that it is a must read for SF writers and readers? I understand that this is one of a series on various scientific subjects, and I intend to seek out the others.

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