The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg

The First Three Minutes by Nobel Prize winning Steven Weinberg, is a short little book about how our universe began.  It is not new, first appearing in 1977, and updated in 1993, but still very readable and not quite out of date, a scientific classic.  While reading The First Three Minutes, I can’t help but compare it to The Book of Genesis.  Weinberg chronicles the science behind, “Let there be light.”

I would like to say this book is readable by any well educated person, but I don’t know if that’s true.  I do think any reader who has kept up with popular science should find it a thrilling quick read.  The first link I give at the top is to Google Books where you can read as much as you like online and decide if you want to buy a copy, but I will say Weinberg has done an excellent job of explaining an extreme mathematical subject with very little actual mathematics.

It is quite presumptuous of scientists to talk about the first three minutes of creation from 13.7 billion years ago, except that we have one direct existing clue, the cosmic background radiation discovered by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson in 1965.  However, that’s like saying we should predict a cake recipe by taking the temperature of a slice of German chocolate before we pop it in our mouth.  What Weinberg is saying, by knowing the average temperature of the universe now, by measuring its rate of expansion, by studying all the sub-atomic particles we can, we can plot backwards to a point in time when the universe was infinitely tiny and very hot.

This is why we spend billions on high energy particle accelerators like the Large Hadron Collider.  The more we know about all the sub-atomic tiny, the more we can say about the super big cosmos.  Once you get a taste for reading about this kind of science, the more you realize that speculating about the first three minutes after the big bang isn’t just idle chatter.  Our scientific view of reality is based on putting a puzzle together of logical pieces.  A student of popular science might begin with a 50 piece puzzle, to get a vague image of the universe, but eventually you’ll want to move on to 500 and 1,000 piece puzzles.  Every science book read helps create a finer mental model of how reality works.  The First Three Minutes by Weinberg provides many major puzzle pieces.

I like to think of our universe as rather hot, because of all the fiery stars, but in actuality, our universe is in a very cooled state.  The average temperature of the universe is just a few degree above absolute zero, whereas during it’s early stages it was millions upon millions of degrees hot, so hot that the particles and atoms we all know and love could not exist as we see them now.  Our visible universe, full of empty clear space, through which light from distant stars and galaxies shine, didn’t develop until the universe got relatively cool.  Before that the universe was opaque.

The First Three Minutes was written just a dozen years after Penzias and Wilson discoveries in New Jersey, and the updated edition was written after early results from the COBE satellite was put into orbit in 1989, giving more confirmation to ideas that were originally just speculation.  I highly recommend people read the CMB and COBE links at Wikipedia.  I wish Weinberg would write a totally new edition of The First Three Minutes, and expand it greatly to show what science has learned about the Big Bang since 1993.  For example, Weinberg had only known the Hubble Telescope during its early failure state, and not the mega success it would become.  He still thought Texas was going to have a super collider.  And there’s no telling what will go in the science books when research from the Planck spacecraft starts coming in.

Weinberg has continued to write science books, such as last year’s Cosmology, but it is expensive and more suited for graduate students, being The First Three Minutes with all the math left in.  It would be nice to have a complete rewrite of The First Three Minutes for us cosmological ground hogs.  I’m having a difficult time finding a current popular science book that covers the same territory as The First Three Minutes but catches up with all the latest scientific discoveries.  Even the 2004 Big Bang by Simon Singh is barely past the early COBE results.  I’d appreciate anyone posting recommendations to more current reading.

JWH – 7/5/9

7 thoughts on “The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg”

  1. Nice analogy with the jigsaw puzzle. The problem with modern astronomy however, is that nowadays, more and more pieces are discovered using methods of observation that were non-existent when these theories were proposed. More and more often these pieces just don’t fit the picture that most theoretical astronomers carry around in their heads. Ignoring inconvenient data (scissors) and fantasy mathematics (thumb pressure) are used to make the pieces fit that picture.

  2. Gilgamesh, do you have any books to recommend that explore how experimental results are not jiving with current models in cosmology?

    By the way, is it a matter of the age of the astronomer? Do astronomers grow up with revolutionary theories and then become conservatives about their ideas?

    And where do you think is the best place to go to get news about theories versus models. To me that’s a fascinating idea. Science has always had a tremendous lag between breakthrough ideas and acceptance, so is it anymore than that? People like me, who study popular science, are way down the trailing tail of real scientists.

  3. James, Thanks for alerting me to your reply, and cheers for the comment about my site in your email. It’s nice to get some positive feedback. I’m under no illusions as to it’s appeal – it’s a very narrow area of interest. But I enjoy it very much and like yourself, I know it’s nice to record some thoughts and feelings and put some structure around something that is interesting (to me at least).

    Regarding my comment, the theory which I’m referring to, which unfortunately I didn’t make clear at all (I kinda got sidetracked with the cool jigsaw thing), is the Electric Universe. That’s what it’s commonly called, but Plasma Cosmology is probably more accurate. I’m not knowledgeable enough in either plasma physics (which is where the EU is grounded), or in the traditional point of view to argue either way on scientific grounds, but as I point out the page on my site ( I consider myself to be a reasonably straight thinking person and I sensed a healthy dose of that coming from the EU direction.

    This EU thing has grown out of a different branch of the sciences – Electrical Engineering and Plasma Physics – where some practitioners have taken a look out there and said “Hang on… you don’t need to invent unobservables and unmeasurables, you can do it like this.” (cue empirical science).

    No-one has ever seen a black hole, or measured dark energy, or touched dark matter. They only exist in abstract mathematics. On the other hand, things like Birkland currents, z-pinches and charge separation in plasma are all real, reproducible and scalable.

    Anyway, I don’t mean to ramble on too much (too late), and I kinda feel like I’m talking at you rather than to you (apologies), but if you go to that page on my site, there are a few links off to a lot of reading on the subject.

    Kind Regards

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