An everlasting read

Published in Sky at Night, 1 Oct 2010

Cycles of Time

Roger Penrose

The Bodley Head (Random House), 288pp

Currently emeritus Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, and perhaps best known for his work on black holes with Stephen Hawking, Sir Roger Penrose is without doubt a very clever man.

Yet if one can fault Penrose’s brain, it is that he doesn’t realise everyone else is not so clever. In his first “popular science” book, The Emperor’s New Mind (1989), a work that explored the nature of consciousness, he casually slipped in a few entire pages of binary code for the “enterprising reader” to decipher. In his last great tome, The Road to Reality (2005), he attempted to explain all the laws of the universe in a mere 1,136 pages. It seems likely a vast portion of readers never finished his past books, and the same, sadly, will probably happen with his latest.

In Cycles of Time: An Extraordinary New View of the Universe, Penrose suggests a new answer to the mystery of what happened before the Big Bang. He does this by analysing the geometry of space-time and the second law of thermodynamics, which states that the universe’s disorder is always increasing. The result, as one learns after a fair chunk of maths, is the idea of “conformal cyclic cosmology”, in which the fate of our universe is the start, or “Big Bang”, of another one.

Cycles of Time is thought-provoking, edifying and just about readable – if you have a degree in physics. If you don’t, you will still learn a lot, but you will need staunch determination to make it fast the first hundred pages or so to where his thesis actually begins.