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"'.

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect