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Audiobook review

The Sounds of Science
by Greg Beatty

Ever wonder what would it be like to have a world-class scientist sit down beside you and explain how the universe works?
If these audiobooks are any indication, it would be wonderful, moving, and overwhelming, but not always for the reasons you might think. Taken together, these three new popular-science audiobooks give a great map of the current soundscape of science.

The First Three Minutes

The First Three Minutes refers to the first three minutes of the universe - the opening crescendo of the Big Bang. During this time the universe exploded from a single dense and undifferentiated state into something closer to the mix of matter and energy that we now enjoy. Weinberg's book is twenty years old, but is rare in that it remains the classic account of this period.

"The First Three Minutes"
by Steven Weinberg

read by Raymond Todd
Blackstone Audiobooks / 2000
4 tapes /6 hours

And you couldn't ask for a better guide to these very busy three minutes. The author, Steven Weinberg, won the 1979 Nobel Prize for Physics; in 1991 he won the National Medal of Science. In addition to his university lecturing, he was dedicated to making science accessible, and did extensive lecturing for the general public, reworking his delivery of key scientific principles until they were understandable, and then reworking those lectures into this popular presentation.

Raymond Todd reads the book with clarity and apparent understanding, bringing enthusiasm and skilled pacing to a narrative already full of drama. My only quibble with the book is that some of these concepts really, really need visual aids - for example, this listener got lost during the formation of the elements.

The Theory of Everything:
The Origin and Fate of the Universe

These two books really belong together. Weinberg provides a classic explanation of where the universe came from; Hawking gives that model a few quantum tweaks, and tells us where it is likely to go.

"The Theory of Everything:
The Origin and Fate of the Universe"

by Stephen Hawking

delivered by the author (using a voice synthesizer)
New Millennium Audio / 2002
4 tapes / 4 hours

If you've read Hawking's "A Brief History of Time" or "The Universe in a Nutshell", then most of this material will be familiar to you; even some of the jokes are the same. This book was put together from a series of lectures Hawking delivered in which he repackages his take on black holes, time, symmetry, and how his own work relates to each of these fields.

However, this audiobook is worth listening to for two very distinct reasons. First, Hawking organizes these lectures in an exceptionally lucid fashion, making the material accessible. Second, he delivers the lectures himself, using a voice synthesizer. Working against the limitations of the synthesizer, often joking about it, Hawking shows just how powerful the focused human mind and will can be.

The Future of Life

...And Edward O. Wilson's "The Future of Life" shows us why we might all need to focus our minds and wills in this way. We don't live during a Big Bang. Nor do we live in the neighborhood of black holes, or any of the other phenomenon Hawking discusses. We live, Wilson's book reminds us, in a much more delicate and limited environment.

"The Future of Life" is a sweeping and sobering review of our planet's biodiversity. It is also, in many ways, a love letter to nature. Wilson begins with an extended address to Henry David Thoreau, his spiritual predecessor, and alternates his review of statistical methods with detailed accounts of personal contact with the wonders of nature. He is impressively grounded in economics as well, offering good economic reasons why we should act now to preserve the environment.

"The Future of Life"
by Edward O. Wilson

Read by Ed Begley, Jr.
New Millennium Audio / 2001
6 cassettes / 9 hours

Reader Ed Begley Jr. is so widely known for his dedication to the environmental movement that he's been mocked on sitcoms such as "Friends" and "Dharma and Greg". That said, his love of the environment fuels his reading, making it one of the most powerful and emotional audiobooks I've ever heard.

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