This is right up there with my all-time favorite science book, Music of the Spheres. I wish I had read it sooner. I was only going to give it four stars because, honestly, I was a little let down to find out it was a generic run-down of the history of cosmology, from Ptolemy to COBE. I’ve read all about these stories many times and was hoping to read a more technical book on more recent discoveries. Alas, such a mixup was my own fault and should not count against Mr. Singh, who amazes once again with his extraordinarily clear prose and explanatory power. For anybody curious about what the (terribly named) Big Bang actually is, and how we know what we know about it, this is an excellent primer. Like many science writers, Singh does a good job, perhaps the best job of any, of pausing along the way to highlight the subtle importance of different aspects of a scientist’s discovery, and how it epitomizes the scientific process and why it works so well.
This is exactly the kind of book I enjoy. It follows the tradition of other favorite collections like The Shell Collector and Ship Fever: Stories. Imagine the cleaning lady at Marie Curie’s laboratory, who at night marveled at the glass jars of faintly bluish glowing “dirt,” with mangled, cancerous hands on her deathbed from picking them up out of wonder and curiosity. Imagine a mother who, tired of her marriage and family, drinks seawater ravenously, to the detriment of her health, because she so misses the freedom of swimming alone in the ocean. I love these creative little windows into other worlds that short stories are so known for. But Edwards goes beyond the traditional formulaic short story and does what only the masters of the craft do: Presenting crisp, emotional, tragic lives with flowing literary prose. I am definitely putting her novel, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, on my list (though don’t I know I’ve read my fair share of mediocre novels by masterful short story authors).