BOOK REVIEW / The Bang, then the flash: Afterglow of creation by Marcus Chown, Arrow pounds 5.99: Wrinkles in time by George Smoot and Keay Davidson, Little Brown pounds 18.99: Ripples in the cosmos by Michael Rowan-Robinson, W H Freeman pounds 16.99

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THERE COMES a time in scientific research when results have to be published, traditionally through the august pages of the scientific journals. Increasingly, especially in the United States, scientists announce their breakthroughs in press conferences and press releases. This was essentially how, in April 1992, the world learnt that a Nasa satellite had detected the afterglow of creation, 'the greatest scientific discovery of the century, if not all time', according to Stephen Hawking, the Cambridge physicist.

It is not surprising in the global village of the late 20th century that finding the radiation ripples of the Big Bang - the 'wrinkles in time' - hit virtually every front page and was transmitted by every major radio and television network within 24 hours of its announcement at a press conference in a Washington hotel. The scale of the coverage seemed to take everyone by surprise, including the scientists themselves.

The most surprised of all were certain members of the research team, who had been unaware that the essence of their work had been released a day earlier, under an embargo, to five selected American journalists. One of the collaborating research organisations, the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in San Francisco, had decided to give favoured science writers prior warning of the story. Apart from creating an atmosphere of intense anticipation, this helped to propel one of the laboratory's scientists, the research physicist George Smoot, into the headlines.

Marcus Chown, a science journalist, points out in his account of how the story unfolded that there was a 'feeling of betrayal' among some members of the scientific team, who felt their contributions had been underplayed. It was George Smoot who became inextricably linked with the Cosmic Background Explorer (Cobe) satellite and its staggering insight into the earliest acts of creation. It was perhaps inevitable that the press adopted Smoot as the figurehead for the Cobe research. After all, he was the one who coined the memorable 'if you're religious, it's like seeing God' in answer to a question about what the research meant. Bringing God into the act guaranteed still wider coverage.

Smoot himself is defensive. 'It's the way the press works,' he told the Independent on Sunday, and he is probably right. He goes to great lengths in his own book - co-written with Keay Davidson of the San Francisco Examiner - to give due credit to his Cobe colleagues, listing hundreds of them at the end of his book.

Michael Rowan-Robinson, professor of astrophysics at Imperial College in London, also became embroiled in the media circus of the Cobe announcement. The obvious choice of contact for British journalists working thousands of miles away and several hours ahead of the action in the US, he evidently enjoyed the excitement of non- stop telephone calls from newspapers, radio and television, and he recounts the events with humour. But this levity sits incongruously with the rest of his book, which is a rather academic, although readable, account of his earlier research into the Big Questions of the universe.

Wrinkles in Time is a more polished piece of work, and most people will find its explanations of difficult cosmological principles easy to follow. But Marcus Chown gets the message across - warts and all - for a third of the price.