Simon & Schuster £12.99 (305pp) £11.69 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 0870 079 8897

Beware Invisible Cows, By Andy Martin

Perhaps as a surfer you are more in touch than most with the scale of nature. Waves the size of houses can crush you to a pulp or send you gliding into that zonal nirvana of oneness with the higher powers which is the object of all that paddling around watching and waiting.

Ex-surfer, now Cambridge academic and historian, Andy Martin, must have spent a lot of his downtime before the wave "take off" meditating on the bigger questions. Where did we all come from? What is the origin of the universe, the primordial truth? His "search for the source of the universe" is a book "about nothing, and everything". It's a tall order.

Not that Martin is a sun-bleached hippie philosopher, but his book is a head-trip as well as a hugely entertaining travel adventure along the eccentric orbits of cosmological research. He is looking for the beginning, the signpost pointing to where it all started. "If only I could lay hold of it, I was sure everything else would be made plain and nothing else would matter. It came down to seeing God."

The stars look very different 14,000 feet above sea level, on top of Hawaii's Mauna Kea. Martin drives up the volcano's track listening to Bowie's "Space Oddity". It's where the two huge Keck observatories keep watch on the void. In the telescope world, "big is beautiful, bigger is better and biggest is best".

This is a very odd world. People say things like "we've got a black-hole leak" or "we zigged when we should have zagged". Astronomers are obsessive types. Any microscopic flaw in observation equipment is likely to be magnified by freakish proportions.

They display a purity of purpose like monks or saints and an insatiable desire for more magnitude, range, power, more everything. The enemy of the telescope is the sun and all proper work must be done at night.

It's ironic, then, that distance is measured in light years. The two Keck telescopes can look back 13 billion light years, which is scraping the bottom of the barrel of the visible universe. Somewhere around 380,000 years after the creation of the universe there is nothing to see, nothing left to detect. Humanity will never really know "what the hell is going on", and speculation takes over: "good old educated guesswork".

Martin's initial journey to the centre of the universe falls down several of these intellectual black holes. He's rescued by the phenomena of gravitational waves, the pulse of the Big Bang, considered by Albert Einstein to be too small to detect, but something that has particularly excited Stephen Hawking. And they make a fantastic record cover. Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures cover is the pulse of the dying neutron star CP1919, discovered by Jocelyn Bell in 1967 in Cambridge, zapping out a signal every few seconds like a distant lighthouse transmitting its silent melancholy message.

Without realising it, we are all cosmologists dreaming of where and how it all began. There are two ways of looking at the world: as unifiers yearning for that lost primeval atom, or as fragmentationists embracing the joys of splitting, of divergence. John Lennon in "Imagine" imagined the world as one, and Paul McCartney's "Yesterday" looked back nostalgically to a lost unity. But then the Beatles split up and ironically the Rolling Stones, champions of anarchy and social chaos, are still together in relative old age, give or take the odd drug-induced fatality.

Cosmology is like that; it constantly avoids our gaze. Martin's attempt to "see the light, and the whole history of light" is a fantastic intellectual voyage, a real eye-opener. He's as clear-sighted with his philosophical arguments as he is very funny in his self-effacement. He may aim high but he is endearingly humble: '"I don't know", I said. "I had forgotten what the question was, but it seemed like the right answer anyway"'.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone