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Book Review : Charting the Scenarios of Cosmology

Creation: The Story of the Origin and Evolution of the Universe by Barry Parker (Plenum: $22.95; 289 pages)

Wonder is the mother’s milk of science. Why are things as they are? What is the truth behind the phenomena that we see? Can we explain the world around us, and if so, how can we do it?

These are very difficult questions, both as a practical matter and philosophically. The granddaddy of them all is the question of how we came to be here, a question that people have been asking as long as there have been people. Where did the universe come from? How did life arise?

In recent decades, scientists have come up with some pretty good guesses in answer to these questions. Guesses may not be exactly the right word. Some researchers will certainly bridle at it. Scientists these days claim to have a fair amount of confidence in their answers, though I wonder what they really think in their heart of hearts, late at night when they’re all alone. How satisfied are they with the answers they currently give? How much confidence do they have in them? How much of the story do we really know, and how much do we take on faith?

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Speculative Scenarios

At least for public consumption, scientists claim to have an amazing amount of detail about events that happened about 18 billion years ago. But the scientific scenarios for the creation of the universe continue to seem more speculative to me than scientists let on.

“Creation: The Story of the Origin and Evolution of the Universe” by Barry Parker is yet another telling of what is currently believed about how the universe got started and developed, how our solar system was formed and how life arose on the third planet from the sun, namely, Earth. You know, from the Big Bang to humans.

Now, I don’t disbelieve this story, full of its intricacies of subatomic particles and quarks and the creation of the elements inside stars and black holes and all of that. Far from it. I am fully aware that these are the best answers to these ultimate questions that the human mind can give at the present time.

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Nor were these answers arrived at easily or carelessly. A lot of work and a lot of thought by very smart people has gone into them.

It’s just that they seem so circumstantial, as they necessarily must. No one was there to observe the Big Bang that got things going or to record any of the critical events that set things on the merry path that ultimately led to us. It’s just that I can’t help wondering how well we can infer what happened back then by investigating the shadows on the wall we see before us now.

Modern cosmology got going in the 1920s with the discovery by Edwin Hubble that the universe was expanding. Scientists reasoned that if everything in the universe is moving away from everything else, and it has been doing so all along, then running the film backwards implies that everything was together at some point long ago and that some tremendous explosion set it all in the motion that we are still observing.

Parker, a physicist and astronomer at Idaho State University, explains every jot and tittle of current cosmological theories about as well as they can be explained for nonspecialists. Some of it is fairly complicated, and those parts remain opaque. But if you grant that the details of modern cosmology are never going to be easy, Parker has done a good job of it.

Not the First

But he is hardly the first author to have done so. Among recent books, Stephen W. Hawking’s current best-seller, “A Brief History of Time,” and Timothy Ferris’ “Coming of Age in the Milky Way,” cover much the same ground, and both do it better.

But Parker’s book is not without merit. He offers particularly good, slightly irreverent capsule biographies of the scientists who have contributed to knowledge in this field. “Einstein . . . remained unassuming and humble throughout his life,” Parker writes. Asked once if he would do it all over again Einstein replied, ‘No, I’d be a plumber.’ ” That’s the kind of detail Parker goes for.

Whether that’s enough to put this book ahead of others on the same topic, I’m not sure. What can be said is that this is an account of the best answers available to humanity’s oldest questions.

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