2005-01-10: The First Three Minutes

The First Three Minutes

A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe (updated 1977)

by Steven Weinberg (1933-)

I’ve been aware of this book for decades, but wasn’t moved to read it until I recently started reading a book about string theory, ostensibly for a popular audience. This book is also aimed at a popular audience, having originated in popular lectures. Unfortunately, I found it somewhat unsatisfying.

Although it is well known that even a single equation will cut the sales of a book, Weinberg claims not to require mathematics, yet constantly expresses mathematical formulas in English sentences and large numbers in words; these take up more room and communicate less clearly than their mathematical equivalent, and are really cheating the reader. Without at least a little math, the text amounts to hand-waving (in some areas, arm-waving). I doubt that the subject can be understood by a mathematically illiterate reader; I consider the attempt to avoid mathematics at all cost to be a wasted effort. Weinberg does provide an appendix full of math, but I didn’t read it. I also doubt many other readers have read it.

I think the subject could be presented in a better way, with the approach used in Gravitation (which of course is not a popular book). Multiple “tracks” through the material could be provided. One track could have lots of pictures and simple notions of the basic concepts (particles, energy, temperature, time), but little quantitative information. Another track could refine the concepts with measurements and other quantitative aspects, including arithmetic and algebra to relate derived quantities. A third track could provide enough math to demonstrate that the first two tracks were not just hand-waving, without trying to derive the necessary equations, simply explaining them.

On a related note, the book has too many references to the work that it summarizes. It’s not as if the target reader could look up any of it, or has any idea who the people named might be.

Aside from those concerns, I thought the subject was well chosen, and I haven’t seen any better treatment. I liked the chapter about the history of the detection of the 3K background radiation; it gives a glimpse into the human side of scientific fashions. Certainly a lot of readers left the book on their desks or coffee tables, without gaining any understanding of its subject, but some at least might have gained a little (or improved their) understanding beyond the various mythologies floating around in our culture.


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