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Cosmology and Controversy: The Historical Development of Two Theories of the Universe

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For over three millennia, most people could understand the universe only in terms of myth, religion, and philosophy. Between 1920 and 1970, cosmology transformed into a branch of physics. With this remarkably rapid change came a theory that would finally lend empirical support to many long-held beliefs about the origins and development of the entire universe: the theory of For over three millennia, most people could understand the universe only in terms of myth, religion, and philosophy. Between 1920 and 1970, cosmology transformed into a branch of physics. With this remarkably rapid change came a theory that would finally lend empirical support to many long-held beliefs about the origins and development of the entire universe: the theory of the big bang. In this book, Helge Kragh presents the development of scientific cosmology for the first time as a historical event, one that embroiled many famous scientists in a controversy over the very notion of an evolving universe with a beginning in time. In rich detail he examines how the big-bang theory drew inspiration from and eventually triumphed over rival views, mainly the steady-state theory and its concept of a stationary universe of infinite age. In the 1920s, Alexander Friedmann and Georges Lema�tre showed that Einstein's general relativity equations possessed solutions for a universe expanding in time. Kragh follows the story from here, showing how the big-bang theory evolved, from Edwin Hubble's observation that most galaxies are receding from us, to the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation. Sir Fred Hoyle proposed instead the steady-state theory, a model of dynamic equilibrium involving the continuous creation of matter throughout the universe. Although today it is generally accepted that the universe started some ten billion years ago in a big bang, many readers may not fully realize that this standard view owed much of its formation to the steady-state theory. By exploring the similarities and tensions between the theories, Kragh provides the reader with indispensable background for understanding much of today's commentary about our universe.


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For over three millennia, most people could understand the universe only in terms of myth, religion, and philosophy. Between 1920 and 1970, cosmology transformed into a branch of physics. With this remarkably rapid change came a theory that would finally lend empirical support to many long-held beliefs about the origins and development of the entire universe: the theory of For over three millennia, most people could understand the universe only in terms of myth, religion, and philosophy. Between 1920 and 1970, cosmology transformed into a branch of physics. With this remarkably rapid change came a theory that would finally lend empirical support to many long-held beliefs about the origins and development of the entire universe: the theory of the big bang. In this book, Helge Kragh presents the development of scientific cosmology for the first time as a historical event, one that embroiled many famous scientists in a controversy over the very notion of an evolving universe with a beginning in time. In rich detail he examines how the big-bang theory drew inspiration from and eventually triumphed over rival views, mainly the steady-state theory and its concept of a stationary universe of infinite age. In the 1920s, Alexander Friedmann and Georges Lema�tre showed that Einstein's general relativity equations possessed solutions for a universe expanding in time. Kragh follows the story from here, showing how the big-bang theory evolved, from Edwin Hubble's observation that most galaxies are receding from us, to the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation. Sir Fred Hoyle proposed instead the steady-state theory, a model of dynamic equilibrium involving the continuous creation of matter throughout the universe. Although today it is generally accepted that the universe started some ten billion years ago in a big bang, many readers may not fully realize that this standard view owed much of its formation to the steady-state theory. By exploring the similarities and tensions between the theories, Kragh provides the reader with indispensable background for understanding much of today's commentary about our universe.

50 review for Cosmology and Controversy: The Historical Development of Two Theories of the Universe

  1. 5 out of 5

    Manny

    This is possibly the best book I have ever read on the history of science, and if you're interested in the subject I recommend it very highly. Professor Kragh sets out to describe the revolution in our concept of the universe that happened between 1915 and 1970. It is every bit as dramatic as the Copernican revolution 400 years earlier, and when he published it (1995) several of the key players were still alive; he talked to most of them, and one (Bondi) is quoted on the back as expressing his a This is possibly the best book I have ever read on the history of science, and if you're interested in the subject I recommend it very highly. Professor Kragh sets out to describe the revolution in our concept of the universe that happened between 1915 and 1970. It is every bit as dramatic as the Copernican revolution 400 years earlier, and when he published it (1995) several of the key players were still alive; he talked to most of them, and one (Bondi) is quoted on the back as expressing his appreciation. This is a classy piece of work. The two theories in the title are the Big Bang, which eventually won, and the Steady State Theory, which mounted a spirited challenge but lost. A large part of the book is about the rivalry between these two theories, and describes how the scientific community eventually decided in favor of the Big Bang. Kragh appears to have read just about every relevant book and paper published during the period, and has done a phenomenal job of organizing this huge mass of material. I am sure there was a temptation to write a bloated thousand-page tome, but he has managed to cut it down to 390 pages of main text plus a hundred or so of end notes and bibliography, which feels just about right. He never shows off his scholarship, but concentrates on the main question: how did we reach the current state of affairs, where nearly everyone in the scientific world believes in the Big Bang? As a result, the book is engaging and highly readable. I got through it in a few days. What I found most impressive is the way Kragh balances five different perspectives: science, history, sociology, philosophy and religion. He is in no way afraid of the science, which he clearly understands in great depth, and he presents equations and graphs whenever they are necessary to support the details of the argument. Although my own understanding of the other subjects is not really sufficient to give a critical appraisal, I found his presentation compelling. As a historian, he comes across as objective and even-handed. He has no obvious axe to grind, and tries hard to help the reader see things as they appeared at the time, not in the light of what came later. As he says, it's all too easy to look at an idea which turned out to be correct, and present it as an amazing flash of insight: often, it's more accurate to call it a lucky piece of speculation. The way he distinguishes between the two is interesting and thought-provoking. In particular, he dismisses claims that Alexander Friedmann should be considered the true originator of the Big Bang theory. Friedmann's 1922 paper was indeed the first thing written on the subject, but Kragh argues that Friedmann was just doing a piece of abstract mathematics, and never seriously considered whether it had anything to do with the real world. It so happened that it did, but we can only see that from our perspective. As someone who works in science, I have often wished that more people would write about its sociology from the inside, but they so rarely do; Smolin's The Trouble with Physics is a fine exception, though it's hard to call Smolin impartial. Kragh comes across as a dispassionate referee, despite the fact that the debate was often highly emotional. One of the best passages occurs near the end, when the Steady State theory is starting to come apart. I had not understood that the thing which contributed most to sinking it was the non-uniform distribution of radio galaxies, as discovered by Ryle's Cambridge group during the late 50s. It all came down to the slope of a certain curve: if the gradient was less than 1.5, the Steady State theory was okay, but if it was higher then the theory was dead. In their second survey (2C), the Cambridge group found a value of 3.0, but it turned out that the results were unstable, and could not be replicated. The third survey (3C) gave a revised value of 1.8. When the results were presented at a conference, Bondi, one of the main champions of the Steady State, made an ironic comment: the number had now dropped from 3.0 to 1.8, so were there grounds for hoping that it might progress to 1.5 in the next edition? Ryle's group had put in years of work in obtaining this number, and the reputations of both groups were largely dependent on what happened. When Bondi asked his question, Ryle lost his temper completely, to the amazement of the audience; one of them said he had never seen such an open display of anger in the 30 years he had been in the field. But it turned out that the 1.8 value was solid, and Ryle later was awarded the Nobel Prize, while Bondi quit the field. And, last but not least, philosophy and religion. One of the most extraordinary aspects of the whole affair was the sharp polarization in this area: the Big Bang theory was to a large extent the work of Georges Lemaître, a Catholic priest, while the leader of the Steady State side, Fred Hoyle, was a militant atheist. So many opportunities to sensationalize the narrative! Kragh examines the evidence in his calm way, and comes to a conclusion that is almost too reassuringly prosaic: even if people's religious or anti-religious beliefs predisposed them to choose their side accordingly, the debate was conducted on purely scientific grounds. Though an interesting footnote is that the Soviet Union, under Stalin, decided all cosmology was bourgeois, so Russian scientists hardly got a chance to contribute. Such an amazing story, and such a great book! I must read some more Kragh.

  2. 4 out of 5

    notgettingenough

    17/7: I have never had to open an Excel spreadsheet on my phone to list typos in a book before. Seriously. Two in one paragraph on p. 17. brihgtness Andomeda Now, I am completely ignorant in the field. If there is an Andomeda, to be spoken of in the same breath as Andromeda, do enlighten me. -------------------------------------------- I know Manny was so taken with this book that he took a chivalrous approach to the publication, but I have only read 4 lines and I'm already crosser than a penguin wh 17/7: I have never had to open an Excel spreadsheet on my phone to list typos in a book before. Seriously. Two in one paragraph on p. 17. brihgtness Andomeda Now, I am completely ignorant in the field. If there is an Andomeda, to be spoken of in the same breath as Andromeda, do enlighten me. -------------------------------------------- I know Manny was so taken with this book that he took a chivalrous approach to the publication, but I have only read 4 lines and I'm already crosser than a penguin who missed the last boat to Antarctica and has to fly the whole way. In the interests of being fair, given that I rant on an almost daily basis about the unreliability of the internet and all this means to us now, including illiteracy, and speed at the expense of accuracy, I wonder if academic publishing has ever had any standards that stack up to those I believe commercial publishers used to have. Back when there were books. The older readers will recall. Line four has the word wih Dead set. Manny did warn me the proofreading would not make me happy. Too right. Princeton University Press. 1999. And NOT EVEN a fucking first printing. They actually had the gall to do this to a reprint. Unfuckingforgiveable.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Xander

    Cosmology and Controversy is a very deep, broad and long book; this is its strength as well as its weakness. Kragh gives a detailed oversight of the development of cosmological ideas in the 20th century - especially the idea of a so called 'big bang' and its competitor the steady-state model. Kragh starts off with describing developments in physics and cosmology in the early 20th century (Einstein, Eddington, Hubble, Milne, Jeans, Lemaitre, etc.). After this he zooms in on Gamow's idea of a hot b Cosmology and Controversy is a very deep, broad and long book; this is its strength as well as its weakness. Kragh gives a detailed oversight of the development of cosmological ideas in the 20th century - especially the idea of a so called 'big bang' and its competitor the steady-state model. Kragh starts off with describing developments in physics and cosmology in the early 20th century (Einstein, Eddington, Hubble, Milne, Jeans, Lemaitre, etc.). After this he zooms in on Gamow's idea of a hot big bang - the first physical cosmological theory (Lemaitre's primeval atom hypothesis was mathematical). In the 50's this hot big bang and the accompanying nucleosynthesis went into oblivion. At the same time, in Great Britain the idea of a so-called steady state cosmology was developed into a fully scientific theory. There was the more rationalistic and deductivist Bondi-Gold theory, but the most important version was Hoyle's quantitative steady state theory. During the 50's and 60's a battle played out in cosmology: did the universe start at some finite time from a hot big bang (the big bang theory)? Or did the universe always exist and is matter continually created in the ever expanding space (the steady state theory)? With the observational discoveries in the 60's (cosmic microwave background radiation, helium abundances, quasars, radioastronomy, etc.) the steady state model was refuted and the hot big bang model became the standard model of the universe. Kragh gives all persons involved an equal treatment and sets common misperceptions straight. All the while sticking to the main story line and delivering a 400+ pages long story of one of the most interesting 20th century scientific debates. The in-depth treatment of all the topics involved in cosmology - even though Kragh keeps mathematics to a minimum - makes this book not too accessible to someone with no prior knowledge of physics and/or cosmology. And the length of the book makes it at some points a very tiring excercise, but the persistent reader will get some very surprising insights out of this book!

  4. 4 out of 5

    Garnett

    Less detail, please.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Ellen

  6. 5 out of 5

    anthony carroll

  7. 4 out of 5

    Alexander François van Biezen

  8. 5 out of 5

    Gerardo Morales

  9. 4 out of 5

    Bethanie Wright

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jovany Agathe

  11. 5 out of 5

    Robert Kaufman

  12. 4 out of 5

    Mathias

  13. 5 out of 5

    Sexualpredatr69

  14. 4 out of 5

    Mark

  15. 4 out of 5

    Eric Languillat

  16. 4 out of 5

    Paul Vittay

  17. 5 out of 5

    Peter

  18. 4 out of 5

    Niklasl

  19. 5 out of 5

    Bob Miller

  20. 5 out of 5

    Roberto Pesce

  21. 5 out of 5

    Wylz

  22. 5 out of 5

    Simon Rebsdorf

  23. 4 out of 5

    Jacob

  24. 5 out of 5

    Robb Davis

  25. 5 out of 5

    PRESENTINE

  26. 4 out of 5

    Alice Anne

  27. 4 out of 5

    Marcus Molden

  28. 4 out of 5

    Sean

  29. 5 out of 5

    Wikimedia Italia

  30. 5 out of 5

    Evy

  31. 4 out of 5

    Jeroen

  32. 4 out of 5

    Cesar

  33. 5 out of 5

    Rose Cimarron

  34. 5 out of 5

    Stas

  35. 4 out of 5

    Traveller

  36. 4 out of 5

    Amy

  37. 4 out of 5

    Yllacaspia

  38. 4 out of 5

    Phil

  39. 5 out of 5

    Dylan

  40. 4 out of 5

    Jur

  41. 4 out of 5

    Simon

  42. 5 out of 5

    Rodrigo Cesáreo Pampin

  43. 4 out of 5

    Carrol

  44. 5 out of 5

    Karl-O

  45. 5 out of 5

    Tzook

  46. 5 out of 5

    Poppy

  47. 5 out of 5

    Kalliope

  48. 4 out of 5

    Cassandra Kay Silva

  49. 5 out of 5

    Sumit

  50. 5 out of 5

    Huyen

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