Paperback: The Universe: A biography, By John Gribbin

Penguin £7.99
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Beginning around 14 billion years ago, at one ten-thousandth of a second after the moment of the Big Bang (the current laws of physics break down when trying to describe what happened prior to that), Gribbins's "biography" describes the interactions and processes that resulted in the universe we know and love today.

Most intriguing, perhaps, are the revelations about the existence of organic molecules (amino acids, sugars and the like) in the clouds of matter from which stars were formed. The mystery of the origin of life on Earth, about 4 billion years ago, "now falls squarely within the province of physical science," says Gribbin, "and is considerably less mysterious than it used to be."

I can't pretend it is an easy read. The early chapters about quantum, string and M-theory will give most intelligent laypersons a headache. But it is likely as lucid an overview of 21st century science