It all started with a bang. The universe, our world, everything else around us, is a result of the Big Bang. It all started from one single dense dot of energy that exploded and expanded—first to the size of a grapefruit and then light years wide. It happened in a matter of seconds.
That’s science: It’s theoretical, sometimes unbelievable and beyond the realms of practicality, but mostly magical. In The Shortest History Of The Universe, American biochemist and author David Baker attempts to break down the magic tricks—and the process—of the cosmos: how atoms created humans and how humans created everything else. He covers everything from extinctions to evolution, human history, the unification of the world, and why Homo sapiens survived but the Neanderthals didn’t.
The book, with a foreword by author and podcaster John Green, is one of six titles in The Shortest History Of... series, which has a wide range of titles—from India, to the erstwhile Soviet Union, and democracy.
The one on the universe has four parts/phases: the inanimate phase (13.8 billion to 3.8 billion years ago), the animate phase (3.8 billion to 315,000 years ago), the cultural phase (315,000 years ago to the present) and the unknown phase, which is essentially our future—humanity’s destiny and possibly Earth’s endgame.
Each chapter in every part starts with a summary of key events. These are simple science cues to prepare the reader for what’s in store.
As one can imagine, explaining the birth and real size of the universe is a complex process. Baker uses relatable analogies time and again to show how big the universe really is. Think of the universe as a tabletop, he writes, because scientists have determined that the universe has “zero curvature”.
The “observable universe”, which is in the form of a sphere, is just one patch on this tabletop. Or, as Baker writes, like the ring left by a hot cup of coffee on the table. And within that ring is Earth, like a tiny speck of wood.
The writing is simple, often mixed with subtle humour, to make you love science—instead of being afraid of it. Baker duly puts out a disclaimer right at the beginning: Science-phobic readers don’t have to worry about complex mathematical equations. Foreign cosmic phenomena have been condensed into plain speech. Period. Think of it as a tête-à-tête with a science expert over a couple of beers, while listening to Supermassive Black Hole by Muse. Only then can you truly understand why DNA (or deoxyribonucleic acid) is the “sexiest acid of them all” and the “software” that makes all living things look and act like they do.
These are exciting times in the world of science and study of the universe. Scientific tools like the James Webb Space Telescope and the forthcoming Euclid mission will uncover more secrets about worlds beyond us. You need such books to understand these things while battling misinformation around science and technology.
There are, of course, still many blank pages in our history. The universe is still expanding and we are still learning. But this is a commendable attempt at reminding ourselves that we remain a tiny, minuscule part of a very big cosmic tale.
Also read: How poetry and art are making science cool