Simon & Schuster £12.99 (305pp) £11.69 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 0870 079 8897
Beware Invisible Cows, By Andy Martin
Friday 10 July 2009
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"'.
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
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