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Summary

A respected physics professor and author breaks down the great debate over the big bang and the continuing quest to understand the fate of the universe. 

Today, the big bang is so entrenched in our understanding of the cosmos that to doubt it would seem crazy. But as Paul Halpern shows in Flashes of Creation, just decades ago its mere mention caused sparks to fly. At the center of the debate were Russian American physicist George Gamow and British astrophysicist Fred Hoyle. Gamow insisted that a fiery explosion explained how the elements of the universe were created. Attacking the idea as half-baked, Hoyle countered that the universe was engaged in a never-ending process of creation. The battle was fierce. In the end, Gamow turned out to be right - mostly - and Hoyle, along with his many achievements, is remembered for giving the theory the silliest possible name: "the big bang". Halpern captures the brilliance of both thinkers and reminds us that even those proved wrong have much to teach us about boldness, imagination, and the universe itself.

©2021 Paul Halpern (P)2021 Basic Books

Critic reviews

"Paul Halpern’s Flashes of Creation introduces us to the human side of the Big Bang: the debate about whether it happened and the effort to develop a consistent mathematical description of the early universe. Flashes of Creation is an engaging look at an important moment in the history of cosmology, and in the era of big data and large, diverse collaborations, it is a valuable retrospective of a distinctly 20th century approach to fundamental physics." (Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, author of The Disordered Cosmos)

"Cosmology today is an established and exciting science, but in the mid-twentieth century it was looked at as somewhat disreputable. This engrossing book tells the story of the two audacious physicists who had the courage to envision the universe as a whole, disagreeing with each other but shaping our modern view of the cosmos." (Sean Carroll, author of Something Deeply Hidden)

"An astute and deeply researched account of the argument between two of the most colorful characters in twentieth-century science, about the true nature of literally everything in existence. Flashes of Creation shows scientists at their most human, as they struggle to unravel riddles of cosmic importance." (Philip Ball, author of Beyond Weird: Why Everything You Thought You Knew About Quantum Physics Is Different)

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Profile Image for Antonio Rojas
  • Antonio Rojas
  • 02-09-21

*A Crown Jewel*

Dr. Halpern regales us with another magisterial creation that combines both basic cosmological physics along with biographically salient aspects in the lives of two much under appreciated giants of the 20th Century: George Gamow and Fred Hoyle. The book is highly engaging and captivating. The storyline is unusually entertaining for the subject: humorous at times, but occasionally tragic and sad. From the scientific perspective, the focus is centered primarily on the initial controversy about universal expansion versus steady state as well as the creation of heavy atoms. Dr. Halpern superbly takes us by the hand and helps us sort out from the very beginning, every thinker and idea that contributed to the development of those two key concepts: the Big Bang and stellar nucleosynthesis.
As advertised, the work is based on the lives and achievements of Gamow and Hoyle, however, like the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London, all the big names are there: Lemaître, Hubble, Pauli, Cockcroft, Born, Landau, Feynman, Bethe, Bohr, Arno Penzias and Wilson, of course, but also Fowler and Chandra, Thorne, Penrose, Guth, and many more.
From the humanistic perspective, the book enlightens us about how science and academia can be utterly unfair. We learn, for instance, that Jocelyn Bell did not get the Nobel in physics in 1974 for for the discovery of pulsars just because… she was a woman? Really? Also, that neither did Hoyle, despite being the leader, the incontrovertible pioneer in the study of heavy element formation at the core of stars, just because he had upset some people in Stockholm? What?? At any rate, and more importantly, Dr. Halpern shows us how life can be overwhelming and sometimes tragic for those whose quest is the pursue of science. He inspires us by magisterially retracing their lives and by showing us their work to decipher the most profound secrets of our ever expanding universe. A true gem of a book!

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