Peep Show

By John Gribbin
Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 504 pp.

Science is a dance between theory and observation, and no science more so than cosmology. Notwithstanding the occasional meteorite from Mars, the study of the heavens has long been an exercise in voyeurism, a peep show in which you can look but you can’t touch.

Even subatomic physicists can get their hands dirty – they can change the mixture in their particle colliders just to see what happens. Astronomers and cosmologists have no such luxury. It’s all just watching and thinking.

And what we have been watching, ever since we started thinking at all, is the biggest Rorschach blot imaginable. Every generation looks up at the stars and thinks it’s solved the mystery of the heavens. Never underestimate the capacity of humankind to stare down even the humbling magnitude of the firmament.

John Gribbin’s Companion to the Cosmos is an up-to-the-moment encyclopedia of what we know – or think we know – about the workings of the universe. It is clear, comprehensive and impressive, the work of a trained astrophysicist and a prolific popularizer of his field. What Gribbin argues, in effect, is that our understanding of the cosmos has undergone an explosion in the space of one generation – a big bang unmatched since the days of Isaac Newton and Christiaan Huygens.

Compare Gribbin’s Companion, hot off the presses, to the 1977 edition of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy.  In the intervening 20 years, the observational data astronomers have managed to wrest from the skies have become ever more finely tuned. Take CP1919, the first pulsar discovered.  Pulsars are dense, collapsed stars that spin rapidly on their axes.  As they spin, they flash radio signals, like the beam of a lighthouse sweeping the horizon.

The Cambridge Encyclopedia lists CP1919 as flashing once every 1.33730 seconds. Gribbin reports that the period has now been refined to 1.33730113 seconds.

That sort of precision is nothing short of astonishing. And when sidereal observations can be made with that degree of confidence, the contours of the Rorschach blot are coming in sharp and detailed.

What have rendered the 1977 Cambridge Encyclopedia truly obsolete, however, are the theoretical advances of the past two decades. Gribbin’s Companion teems with references to quantum fluctuations in space-time, naked singularities, inflation theory, “baby universes” pinching off from our own where matter collapses into a black hole. Twenty years ago, these key ideas hadn’t been invented yet.

And these are sweet concepts, in the sense that the features they predict are uncannily confirmed when astronomers turn their instruments to the heavens. Gribbin’s is no dry, deadpan compendium. It’s positively exuberant, convinced that we at last know not only what the Rorschach blot means, but how it came to be and why it took its characteristic shape. The fit between the mathematical models and the observational data is so compelling that one can’t help but be persuaded that the cosmologists are right – or as right about anything as it’s possible to be.

The science Gribbin describes is magnificent. It’s also a labour of monumental hubris. On the cosmological scale of things, 20 years is less than nothing, not even a pinprick on the timeline of existence. But if the astrophysicists are to be believed, in our brief lifetimes the cosmos has finally yielded its

  • Globe and Mail August 30, 1996