(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Henry David Thoreau noted in his masterpiece, Walden, “The universe is wider than our views of it.” His observation sprung more from intuition than scientific knowledge of the whole scale structure of the cosmos. It was not until the twentieth century that Thoreau’s 1847 pronouncement on the state of the universe would be substantiated by scientific evidence. Extraordinary discoveries, especially in the fields of astronomy and physics, have forever changed our perceptions of the universe and of our place in it.

The advent of dynamic new theories, as well as cutting-edge technology, gave birth to the infant science of cosmology and propelled it into adulthood. Exotic ideas such as the big bang, black holes, quantum leap, and the space-time continuum were eagerly explored by the scientific community. Such concepts even became part of pop culture as science fiction writers appropriated them as literary devices. Timothy Ferris, respected science writer and professor emeritus of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, addresses these and other abstract concepts in The Whole Shebang: A State-of-the-Universe(s) Report. Shunning mathematical equations and convoluted interpretations, Ferris offers an engrossing, comprehensive, and comprehensible report on how science views not only the beginning of creation but the current—and future—state of the universe as well. His lucid treatment of difficult concepts such as quantum uncertainty, relativity, inflationary models of the universe, and “string” theory aids the general reader in understanding the puzzling structure of the universe as it is understood by astronomers and physicists.

Beginning with a historical overview, Ferris traces how the human perception of the universe has changed over time. He covers familiar ground as he hits the highlights: Ptolemy’s epicycles, Copernicus’s sun-centered universe, Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, Galileo’s concept of inertia, Newton’s law of gravity, Einstein’s theory of relativity, the much-debated Hubble constant, and finally the big bang theory, which shapes our modern concept of “the beginning.” Ferris’s discussion of this material may be familiar to some readers. But to those who have little background in physics or astronomy, understanding these theories is vital to comprehending other, more difficult concepts presented later in the book.

One of the most engaging chapters in the book comes early on when Ferris launches into a discussion about the controversy surrounding the theory of black holes. These strange objects defy our earth-bound perceptions of space and time as they gobble up stars unlucky enough to cross their paths. Their masses are so dense and their gravitational fields so strong that nothing nearby can escape their feeding frenzies. As space curves around itself, past, present, and future become indistinct from one another within the black hole, cut off from the rest of the universe. Current research indicates that black holes, once thought to be rare, are quite common. Found at the centers of galaxies, they are responsible for the annihilation of millions of suns. From the basics of thermodynamics to the weird world of wormholes, Ferris’s coherent discussion of black holes, while based on solid science, still manages to convey the wonder cosmologists feel as they strive to understand the properties of these peculiar objects.

Ferris’s account concerning the unraveling of the mystery surrounding black holes is engrossing enough, but he also gives the reader a glimpse of the personal side of science when he recounts the David and Goliath-like battle between graduate student Jacob Bekenstein and famed cosmologist Stephen Hawking. Bekenstein pondered the problem of black hole entropy. He believed that, contrary to prevailing opinion, black holes possessed entropy and that entropy, if boosted by outside forces, could increase the disorder inside the black hole. Even though it was believed that no information could escape a black hole, Bekenstein’s theory suggested that the contents of a black hole could leak out into space. Hawking, one of the foremost theorists of black hole dynamics, took issue with Bekenstein’s hypothesis. A tug-of- war ensued between Hawking, Bekenstein, and their followers that revealed much about not only the nature of black holes but the inner workings of the scientific community as well.

This is only one example of the many fascinating vignettes that pepper Ferris’s account. Ferris effectively uses these inside stories to shed light on the politics, power, and quest for truth that drives, and sometimes divides, the scientific community. Yet controversy often brings an opportunity for growth...

(The entire section is 1926 words.)