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Book Review: Once Before Time: A Whole Story of the Universe by Martin Bojowald

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This may sound a little off the wall, but bear with me. I have always had an interest in science, probably going back to my teen years as a sci-fi geek, and realizing that the greats created their tales by extrapolating from actual scientific phenomena. Besides reading books by the likes of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Phillip K. Dick – I was also quite intrigued by science fiction on TV, especially Star Trek.

Then there was the rise of “pop science.“ Carl Sagan’s enormously successful Cosmos is one example of this. Later, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was published to wide acclaim. Here’s the embarrassing part. I have been watching the sit-com The Big Bang Theory lately, and have learned that the incredibly complex equations they use at times are vetted by physicists to make sure that they are absolutely valid. The knowledge to actually understand this stuff is something I would love to have, but they represent a world that is light-years beyond my comprehension. I guess majoring in English was not exactly the route to go if I ever wanted to grasp quantum mechanics.

Still, while watching the predictable, (if generally humorous) escapades of these super-smart people, my interest in “real” science has been piqued. With this in mind, I happened upon Martin Bojowald’s new book Once Before Time: A Whole Story of the Universe (Vintage) and was instantly intrigued.

Bojowald’s main thrust is a bold new theory of the origins and direction of the universe. Even with my limited scientific knowledge, I realize that this is a departure from the Big Bang theory. Making material that is this complex understandable to a mook like myself is quite a task, but Mr. Bojowald does a good job.

To briefly summarize, what the author proposes is something of an expansion of the Big Bang. He uses what is called “loop quantum gravity” (or LQC) to present the idea that the Big Bang could have been the outcome of events in an even earlier universe . While I do not pretend to completely understand all of the science, I do get the general idea – and it is a pretty hefty “addendum” (for lack of a better word) to the Big Bang. He is not arguing against it, but expanding upon the accepted hypothesis.

Surprisingly, Once Before Time is relatively concise, just 320 pages. One thing I think would have added a great deal to it would have been some diagrams or illustrations to make the concepts a little easier to grasp. It also is slow-going at times, because there are a number of things that even a relative dummy like me understands, such as gravity.

All in all though, I found Once Before Time to be a very thought-provoking book, and Bojowald’s “arrow through time” chapter provides a conceit that at least gave me an image to work with while contemplating the ideas.

The book may not enjoy the huge crossover success that Hawking’s A Brief History of Time did, but it is definitely geared to the same audience. To get the general public interested, there obviously needs to be a bit of “dumbing down,” so that those of us without Ph.Ds can (somewhat) grasp the notions. I imagine that this kind of a tough line to straddle. How does one explain such lofty thoughts to the mass market, while retaining the respect of their fellow over-130 IQ peers?

From this reader’s solidly average IQ’s perspective, Once Before Time provides an intriguing perspective on some pretty deep concepts. To use a well-worn cliché, the book offers food for thought, at the very least.

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About Greg Barbrick