Book Review: The First Three Minutes

The First Three Minutes: A Modern View Of The Origin Of The Universe by Steven Weinberg.

“What could be more interesting than the problem of Genesis?” The First Three Minutes can be thought of as a second-half of the 20th century attempt to, not necessarily find an answer to the problem, but put bounds on what the solution could be. The cosmic clock is rewound as far as contemporary physics can go, with particularly emphasis placed on the first three minutes (or, more precisely, the first three and three-quarter minutes) of the universe, neglecting the very earliest moments.

I had heard much of the story before reading the book, but I still enjoyed taking another tour. After all, its our origin story, the creation myth that modern science has given us. The earliest moments of the universe are its most bizarre, with colossal temperatures and wholly alien states of matter. Weinberg does a good job of presenting it simply without being simplistic: all the meat is there and the reader is not treated like a child, which is a goal he laid out in the preface. In that I believe he succeeded.

The problem I suppose with The First Three Minutes is of no fault of its own, but of its time. Since it was written in 1976 and briefly updated in the early ’90s, none of the big questions of modern cosmology are present: dark matter (save for a brief mention of an interesting result in the new afterword), dark energy, or inflation. There are also little things missing that are more recent discoveries, like when he’s listing off the leptons he does not include the tauon which was only newly discovered around the time of the writing, or the lack of mention of the third generation of quarks. The main story itself is not effected much since these are relatively exotic particles, but it’s like in an early chapter of The Feynman Lectures when geology is being discussed and you suddenly realize that the scientists of that time were largely ignorant of plate tectonics. Weinberg has written a more technical text, Cosmology, that I plan to eventually read when I have the background to do so where these minor bruises would be absent. Another curiosity was Weinberg’s use of terms like “1000 million” instead of a billion, which I’ll chalk up to being a product of the times.

Regardless, I enjoyed the book and I would recommend it to anybody with an interest who had some prior exposure to the sciences, since I think a wholly uninitiated layperson would have some difficulty getting up to speed. There are other more up-to-date summaries of universal history, but Weinberg has been a leader in recent physics and there’s utility in hearing it straight from the horse’s mouth.

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