Books

John Gribbin
13.8

John Gribbin has written or co-written a stupendously large number of books about quantum physics, climate change, and evolutionary biology and genetics, as well as biographies of leading scientists. Yet his true loves seem to be cosmology (the study of the origins and development of the universe) and astrophysics (the study of the chemical and physical properties of distant objects in the universe). The blurb of 13.8 claims that it reveals how these two related disciplines can be synthesised into a broader “Theory of Everything”.

This is an extraordinary ambit claim, of the kind that helps sell books to lay audiences and probably makes those with a deeper knowledge of contemporary physics blink in momentary disbelief. The “Theory of Everything” – a theoretical framework for physics that would reconcile both general relativity and quantum field theory; that is, our understanding of everything on a scale from the known universe to the subatomic – is one of the great unsolved problems of physics. A single book of popular science couldn’t by any means provide this reconciliation, and indeed 13.8 does not: it reserves its discussion of the potential reconciliation of these two theories for its introduction and the final paragraph of the final chapter.

Instead, 13.8 offers a gripping account of two related but very different scientific problems: how to determine the ages of individual stars and how to determine the age of the universe. In each case Gribbin commences from very early attempts to understand the problems through to their present solutions, tracking the protagonists involved as they struggle through the scientific process, with all of the dramatic reversals of fortune and sudden breakthroughs that it entails.

Gribbin’s narrative history is the kind of Whig historiography that remains controversial within academia, but for non-specialist readers it has the virtue of making developments easy to follow and providing an overall shape to what could otherwise be an intimidating mass of difficult science. His deft touch allowed me to feel as though I understood the basics of something as recondite as quantum tunnelling in the generation of heavy elements within stars, for example. 

Ignore the promotional sell of sizzle rather than sausage and 13.8 is an engaging and entertaining tour de force.  SZ

Icon, 240pp, $39.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 31, 2015 as "John Gribbin, 13.8". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: SZ