Flashes of Creation by Paul Halpern, is a readable and fascinating account of the lives of theoretical physicist, George Gamov and physicist, Fred Hoyle, and their competing theories on the formation of the universe. Gamov was a strong advocate of the Big Bang theory (a term ironically coined by Fred Hoyle) and the Hoyle championed the steady state theory.

While the book focuses on Hoyle and Gamov, it deals with a highly complex set of ideas and theories but is written in a way that makes it easily understood by a non-physicist.

Hoyle and Gamov only met once, but the book details how, through publications, conferences, collaboration and media appearances, they shaped the debate in the mid-20th century around the formation of the universe. The book also shows how their thinking was also influenced by the web of physicists and theoreticians working in this area and Halpern manages to bring this interaction together is a well-structured historical narrative.

Both theories competed throughout the first half of the twentieth century with physicists split between the two camps. This started to change in 1964 when Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson detected cosmic background radiation, leading to the eventual acceptance of the Big Bang theory over Hoyle’s steady-state theory.

The book also covers many individuals and their work that contributed to astrophysics in the 20th century, including Alpher and Hermann who essentially developed the Big Bang theory and Lemaître who had the initial idea based on the earlier work of Friedman. All in all the book provides a great illustration of the iterative nature of the scientific endeavour and the expression “standing on the shoulders of giants”.

Although Hoyle’s steady-state idea lost out to the Big Bang theory, he made many other significant contributions, especially involving stellar processes and supernova explosions, which he showed could fuse chemical elements into heavier atoms, complementing Gamov’s work on the creation of helium.

Overall, “Flashes of Creation” is an entertaining and accessible account of the lives and work of two great scientists and their contributions to the field of astrophysics.

Pat Devine