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Book review: Genesis, by Guido Tonelli

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CERN physicist Guido Tonelli explains billions of years of cosmological evolution through the framework of the seven ‘days’ of creation, drawing on mythological tropes to breathe character into particles and astronomical objects.

Tonelli is best known as a leading player in CERN’s discovery of the Higgs Boson. If you don’t remember him, you may remember the announcement by Tonelli and Fabiola Gionotti – the spokespeople for the CMS and ATLAS experiments, respectively – that they had found evidence of the Higgs in 2011.

As well as being a respected particle physicist at the University of Pisa, Tonelli is also an excellent science writer. Genesis: The Story of How Everything Began (Profile Books, ISBN 9781788165105, £16.99) was a bestseller in his native Italy and has now been translated into English.

“How did everything come from nothing?” is one of the most stubborn, troubling, and incomprehensible questions; it is often cited as an inexplicable gap in science that creator gods can settle in, having been rudely ushered out of other gaps in understanding.

“At the origin of mythological narratives […] there always seems to be something indistinct that most troubles us: chaos, darkness, a liquid and formless expanse, a tremendous fog, a desolate Earth – until a supernatural being intervenes to shape things and bring order,” Tonelli writes, as he begins his task of explaining what lies in that gap still largely inhabited by the supernatural.

Genesis does a smart job of explaining not just the birth of the universe but also why the birth of the universe causes such confusion. The common-sense defying physics that dominates under extreme conditions – such as at the birth of the universe and inside the LHC – is something human minds are not equipped to comprehend; we have a very confined point of view. But the story is important for scientists to share, he explains, because our conceptions of ourselves are deeply conditioned by these stories.

Tonelli uses plain language to explain cosmological evolution to the non-expert, weaving a grand story which is memorable and exciting rather than rigorous.

He uses the Biblical seven days of creation to structure Genesis, but draws on mythology from across the world and human history. He introduces Shiva to explain how a void is not the same as the philosophical concept of nothingness – but a “dynamic and constantly changing substance” – and compares the hypothetical life-death-rebirth of the universe to the concept of Saṃsāra. “Let there be light” occurs as matter in the universe becomes rarefied enough for photons to travel. To be clear, there is no hostility towards religious mythologies here; in fact, Tonelli often references the curious similarities between them and what we know now about cosmological evolution.

Creation stories tell of strange and primitive worlds populated by colourful non-humans, and Tonelli evokes mythology by spinning characters from abstract concepts and objects. Neutrinos are delicate, shy, benevolent creatures, quasars are astronomical dragons. Irregularities in the cosmic microwave background are like the pieces of paper slotted in the Wailing Wall, revealing the workings of quantum mechanics on a galactic scale. His analogies are genuinely imaginative.

The grand narrative stretches from the bubbling void at the beginning of the universe to the emergence of life on Earth.

This is not strictly new subject matter to cover in a popular science book – the evolution of the universe is one of the most popular subjects out there – but coming from a man at the heart of the world’s largest experiment (who doubles as an excellent science writer) makes it well worth reading.

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