An expert and entertaining account of the first great controversy in cosmology.
Physics professor Halpern, who has authored many books on cosmology and the universe, has chosen irresistible material for his latest book. Unlike relativity, the origin and fate of the universe is a fairly easy topic to understand, especially for those versed in the basics of physics. Even better, both of the author’s vivid subjects wrote for a popular audience and had no inhibitions about conducting their debate in the media. George Gamow (1904-1968), born in Odessa, was a brilliant theoretical physicist who moved to the U.S. in 1934. After making important discoveries in nuclear physics, he turned his attention to cosmology, combining Einstein’s description of the existing universe with refinements by other brilliant (but less media-savvy) scientists to become the leading proponent of the Big Bang theory. Despite the popular image, this was not an explosion but the spectacular origin of everything—including time and space—from an infinitesimal point. British physicist Fred Hoyle (1915-2001) was already a leading figure in his field when the origin of the universe became a major topic of debate after World War II. Dismissing the Big Bang theory as a quasi-religious form of divine creation, he and colleagues proposed a steady-state theory in which matter appeared spontaneously as the universe expanded. Ultimately, the Big Bang theory won out due to evidence, especially the 1964 discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation, the cooling remnant of an ancient, dense, hot universe. While many popular histories of this debate portray Gamow and Hoyle spending their lives debating this question, Halpern’s nuanced biographies give equal space to their other accomplishments, which were not only important, but Nobel-worthy. Although they never collaborated, their work explained how all the heavier elements originated from primordial hydrogen. Gamow showed how helium emerged in the Big Bang, and Hoyle, how all the others formed from stars.
Two iconic scientists come together in an outstanding dual biography.