"Wrinkles in Time"

By George Smoot and Keay Davidson
William Morrow and Company, New York, 1993
331 pages

Reviewed by Jeffery Kahn, [email protected]

Reading a book about the discovery made by the Cosmic Background Explorer satellite's Differential Microwave Radiometers team--the finding of anisotropy in the cosmic microwave background--could be a tedious exercise. Not so with "Wrinkles in Time," a science book which, like gravity, draws in anybody who opens its covers.

LBL astrophysicist George Smoot and his co-author, San Francisco Examiner science writer Keay Davidson, have crafted a book that does not preach to the choir, does not explain astrophysics to astrophysicists. Instead, the book relates the adventures of a team of explorers engaged in the age-old human quest to understand the origins of our universe.

On April 23, 1992, Smoot's team announced that they had discovered the primordial "seeds" from which our present-day universe has grown. A map of these seeds--what has been called a baby picture of the universe at the age of 300,000 years--accompanied this announcement.

Up until that day, similar efforts to picture the early universe had shown an absolutely featureless, uniform sea of mass and energy. This picture was different. It revealed gargantuan realms with minuscule differences in temperature and density. Over 15 billion years, gravity has magnified these tiny differences, expanding some into the vast voids of space and collapsing others into the massive structures such as stars and galaxies and even larger structures that populate space.

The announcement of this discovery made front-page news around the world. And then, as is the fate of news, it faded from public attention. The book picks up where the news accounts left off, convincingly making the case that we have entered a golden age of cosmology.

Cosmologists are now confident they can relate the history of the universe back to 10[-43] second after the Big Bang. To allow us to appreciate this triumph of human intellect, Smoot and Davidson include a cosmological history. From Aristotle to Ptolemy to Copernicus to Lemaitre and the Big Bang, cosmologists have painted an evolving, ever more precise picture of the universe. The pictures in these cosmologists' minds became the collective consciousness of their respective times.

Smoot's quest for the seeds of structure in the universe consumed 18 years. The book traces the obstacle course of discovery. There was the balloon flight over the Badlands of South Dakota and the crash of the instrument package next to the Anderson family milking barn. There was the successful effort to persuade the military to allow the team to use and modify the U-2 spy plane to measure the lumpiness of the universe. Another chapter tracks a balloon launched from Brazil and lost somewhere in the jungle. Two years later, after a poacher told fellow patrons at a bar about a strange object he had found in the jungle, the team managed to recover their instruments and data.

Throughout the book, elegant metaphors and descriptions are used to dissolve the complex fog that veils science from the public. Instead of being strangled by esoteric language and data, the romance of scientific pursuit and the wonder of science is revealed.

A case in point is the chapter on Antarctica. Smoot and company journeyed there to precisely map the microwave radiation from our Milky Way galaxy. In these excerpts, the book describes how Smoot and LBL's Giovanni De Amici assembled their radio telescope dish:

"Outdoors, our eyes streaming with tears from the cold wind, Giovanni and I assembled the dish piece by piece, petal by petal. Each of the 24 metal petals was connected to a central hub. It was like piecing together a sunflower...

"Finally, after two weeks of physical suffering, ill-temper and hit-it-until-it-works, we were ready to eavesdrop on the Milky Way, a typical medium-sized spiral galaxy containing 100 billion or so stars. Earth orbits a star in a distant corner of the galaxy, whose disk arches across the night sky like a cloud of fireflies, and whose center--something obscured by dust clouds--glowers in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius, the Archer. From that disk, and particularly from the center, comes a clamor of radio noise generated by heat produced as dust clouds condense into planetary systems, as nebulae collapse into fusion-energy machines called stars, as neutron stars spin madly and suck matter from companion stars, and as cataclysmic events of an unknown nature (a monstrous black hole? antimatter annihilation?) transpire within the galactic core, where the stars crowd so tightly that night never falls."

Like the immense amount of news coverage about the COBE findings, "Wrinkles in Time" helps in the transfer of scientific knowledge to the public, to the people who paid the taxes that made COBE possible. History ultimately will judge the importance of the finding of the primordial seeds, but the book makes this much clear: Fifteen billion years after the Big Bang, late in the 20th Century, generations of human efforts have coalesced into an astonishingly detailed picture of the Beginning.