Origins: The Scientific Story of Creation
By Jim Baggott
Review by David Wineberg
It is only in the last hundred years that we have been able to discuss the origins of the universe with any kind of evidence. All previous discussion came out of myth, philosophy and religion. Even though our understanding is still piecemeal, Jim Baggott has assembled what is fairly certain, into an extraordinary story. There is still a lot of “We just don’t know”, but Baggott’s earned reputation is that he disallows the baseless (See my review of his Farewell to Reality . This is a great relief for those of us who are not astrophysicists and microbiologists.
There’s a lot of physics and chemistry to understand as he tackles the universe. Most of it is subatomic, which is a bit ironic, considering the massive clouds and galaxies we can barely perceive. Nearly halfway through the book, he gets to our solar system.
His explanation of the formation of the solar system is too complicated and unsatisfying, a patchwork of kludges. There is a far simpler, more elegant explanation from astrophysicist Marvin Herndon, who is not referenced at all (though his mentor, Harold Urey, is referenced numerous times). Herndon says that all planets form, not from “accretion” (which Baggott also has trouble with), but from the gas cloud that Baggott calls Neith, which rained-in its elements by force of gravity. This why we keep finding that planets, comets and moons are made of the same materials. The sun, being 99% of the mass of the solar system, had critical mass, and didn’t just shine, it ignited. The planets, all of which were gas giants like Jupiter, reacted according to their distance from the sun. The inner planets got their gas cover blown off, leaving rocky cores, which continue to relax and expand. In the ignition, Mercury also lost a seventh of its mass, which ended up in pieces just beyond the range of the sun’s blast, in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Herndon manages to answer the questions with elegant solutions, while ironically, Baggott relies on standard theory, with its ifs, ands, buts and we-don’t-knows. He says it is “reasonable” to assume that an iron core somehow produces a wandering magnetic field. Unfortunately, the Earth’s core is not iron. He ducks the exciting issue of the planetary cores, which Herndon describes in detail. (For a quick summary of Herndon’s theory, see my review of Maverick's Earth and Universe)
Baggott is on firmer ground when he examines biological history, where things are clearer. From all the evidence, it would have been a miracle if life did not take shape on Earth. The combination of oceans, warmth, light, magma, vents, electrical storms and crashing comets make the chemical interactions that led to life almost a certainty. And it keeps coming back, in radically different shapes and sizes, every time it gets wiped out. Earth is a universe-class incubator.
This telling of Creation is not ironclad, but as usual, Baggott is clear and helpful, and refreshingly doubting where necessary.
Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.