In exhilarating and behind-the-scenes detail, Panek takes his readers on a tour of the bitter rivalries and fruitful collaborations, the eureka moments and blind alleys, that have fuelled the search, redefined science, and reinvented the universe.Science journalist Panek (The Invisible Century) offers an insider's view of the quest for what could be the ultimate revelation: the true substance of the unseen dark matter and energy that makes up some 96% of our universe.
It's a terrific subject -- one that will literally determine the fate of the universe -- but Panek's treatment of it, while well-written enough, just wasn't quite what I was hoping for. There's a phrase I've often heard applied to works of non-fiction, frequently on the back cover blurbs: "It reads like a novel!" That's pretty much always intended to be a compliment, but it seems to me that, honestly, it's not always a good thing. Some topics lend themselves well to the "reads like a novel!" treatment, and some just... don't. And I'm not at all sure this is one that does.
Don't get me wrong. I think it's great to have some human interest in books on scientific subjects and to portray scientists as the human beings they are. And I think it's very important to accurately depict science as a process of figuring things out, rather than treating it as a series of facts handed down from some authority on high. And Panek definitely does both of these things. But... Well, it seems to me as if he's doing his darndest to make this a story full of DRAMA! and CONFLICT! and CHARACTERS! There are times over the course of this book when I think that works, when the science itself makes for an exciting story. But there are other times when it just feels forced and distracting.
Mind you, this may be just a case of me going into the book with the wrong set of expectations. What I was really hoping for was a nice succinct overview of how scientific thinking on this topic has progressed since I studied it in college, twenty years ago. What I got was a bit less of that and a bit more "Ooh, let me tell you the juicy story of the rivalry between these two groups of researchers studying supernovae!" Yes, the science was still there, but not quite in the form I wanted it. Other people, particularly those who may be interested in this kind of topic but find complicated scientific stuff easier to process if it's a bit less concentrated, may find it more up their alley.
It's sad, really. I expected "one of the most important stories in the history of science" (Washington Post) to be about science, not interpersonal relationships and funding battles! The subtitle, "Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality" turned out be be less about dark matter and more about the race itself.
Panek is a brilliant man with an excellent grasp of the high-end physics involved. He also has a good sense of history and knows how to craft an elegant chapter.
In the end, if you're a scientist in this field looking for primer on the politics you're wading into, by all means read this book! If you're a curious layman wondering about the unseen 96% of our universe, you'll have to look elsewhere.
Richard Panek’s 4 Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality certainly enlightens one’s understanding of the infinite neighborhood that is our universe, but the real fun is the soap opera surrounding the scientists themselves. Rivaling any episode of As the World Turns, the quantum psychology taking place between these men and women of science as they attempt to explain the laws of the universe, thus attaching their name to the very fabric of existence, is the gravity that held my attention.
In a time long, long ago, in a galaxy that really wasn’t far away at all, the world of cosmological greatness was within my grasp. Renowned Baylor School physics professor, Dr. George Taylor struggled valiantly for much of 1979 and part of 1980 to propel me into the gravitational pull of the science of physics. I don’t know when Dr. Taylor realized the mission would have to be aborted, but for me it was not until the very last day of class. Our comprehensive final exam was held at the laboratory known as “Six Flags Over Georgia”, and consisted of problems requiring the student to demonstrate their knowledge of the Newtonian laws regulating The Great American Scream Machine, or Riverview Carousel.
The bus ride home revealed that my day would have been just as fruitful if I had signed my name to the test, turned it in, and enjoyed the late spring day. Though my grade of 47 accurately measured my understanding of the discoveries of Galileo, Kepler, Einstein and the boys, it in no way captured the awe created in me by viewing the universe through the lens Dr. Taylor called “physics”.
Awe, inspired by Dr. Taylor’s passion for the forces at work in the cosmos, fortunately overpowered my limited understanding, and helped make 4 Percent Universe a fascinating read. Thanks Dr. Taylor! Oh yeah, you too Richard Panek.
Journey into this bubble world of cosmological specialists as they race to make their mark on history. They are pioneers for sure, but their frequent sophomoric rivalries only serve to taint their professionalism.
Panek's book covers the who's who of astronomy and physics over the past century. Einstein, Hubble, Feynman and Hawking are the best-known, but the who's who of astrophysics appear somewhere in this book. Anecdotal stories describing how certain think tanks came together provide insight on how up-and-coming astronomers gain their cred.
The over-arching theme is the search for dark matter. Dark matter, by definition, is mass that is heretofore unobserved, but must exist for the universe to behave the way it does. A scientifically important pursuit, it is also costly in terms of research teams,. time on the world's largest telescopes, and supercomputing power. This quest is largely an academic one, and those are none to popular during times of austerity. Still, the pursuit goes on, and as long as brilliant minds dedicate themselves to proving the ultimate story of the universe, it is worth the effort from time to time to check in on the progress. Panek's progress report is well written and can get anyone up to speed on the current state of research as well as the historical research preceding it.
Also discusses modern research on the cosmological constant, through observation of supernovas. Good stuff.
Although I am reminded of the aphorism that "Academic politics is much more vicious than real politics. We think it's because the stakes are so small." Although, if we're dealing with the universe, the stakes are a bit bigger than that.
Richard Panek tells the dramatic story of how scientists reached this cosmos-shattering conclusion. In vivid detail, he narrates the quest to find the "dark" matter and an even more bizarre substance called dark energy. The scientists involved in this search--Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt, and Adam Riess--shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for their efforts.
But these scientists were not all working together. The 4% Universe offers an intimate portrait of the bitter rivalries and fruitful collaborations, the eureka moments and blind alleys that fueled their search, redefined science, and reinvented the universe. Drawing on in-depth, on-site reporting and hundreds of interviews, Panek does for cosmology what others have done for biology, sports, and finance: He tells a fascinating story that illuminates the inner workings of a particular (and in this case, particularly unfamiliar) world.
Modern cosmology theory is deeply, mathematically complex and draws as much from the world of physics as it does from the world of astronomy. We see more and more that quantum physics and general relativity are having to sit uncomfortably (at the moment) alongside each other to describe the universe at large. This coming together of disciplines is one of the themes discussed in this book. Rather than discuss the mathematics and the theories in technical detail, most of which are actually unproven anyway, Panek focuses on the ways that cosmology has progressed and on the personalities and teams that have worked in this area. Generally, this works, but because there are so many characters we often loose track of the players. There is a disconcerting tendency for people to be graduate students on one page and receiving major prizes or being given senior appointments at universities then next time we meet them.
A failing of the edition I read is the unnecessary and rather badly handled anglicisations throughout: dollars to pounds sterling, pounds weight to stones, etc. If I can be trusted with an explanation of dark energy, SHouldn't I be trusted to understand how much a million dollars is?
Historically, astronomy and physics didn't have a great deal to do with each other. Astronomers studied the stars by observation, very patient and detailed observation and record-keeping. Theoretical physicists theorized and calculated, and experimental physicists experimented, and they fed each other's work, very occasionally coming up with something, most notably gravity, that made a real difference to astronomy. Then Einstein gave us general relativity, and began a century of ever-deeper entanglement of physics and astronomy, and the transformation of cosmology--the study of the nature and origins of the entire universe--from something utterly beyond the scope of physics into its core. The questions of how big the universe is, whether it is eternal in space and time or had a beginning and might have an end, became real questions.
Edwin Hubble, early in the century, discovered that the universe is expanding, but also that there are other galaxies beyond our own, and that they're all moving away from us. This was a major, exciting, and initially controversial change in our conception of the universe. In the 1960s, Vera Rubin, looking for a research project she could do within the constraints of raising two young children, studied other astronomers' observations and discovered that the galaxies were rotating as well as moving away from us. Also in the mid-1960s, Robert Dicke, Jim Peebles, and a small group of theoretical physicists had a prediction for which they had no supporting data: If the Big Bang theory of the history of the universe were correct, there should be low-level cosmic microwave radiation, at a temperature of about 3 degrees Kelvin. Then two astronomers at Bell Labs, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, had data for which they had no explanation: While trying to calibrate the Bell Labs' Crawford Hill antenna to study radio waves from the fringes of the Milky Way, they found they had a tiny background hiss which no amount of calibration would eliminate. They'd found the background cosmic radiation, echo of the Big Bang.
That's one small step along the way, from Einstein to the discovery that most of our universe is invisible. As the back and forth played out between the theoretical physicists and the experimental and observational scientists, increasingly astronomers, each theoretical question drew forth an observation, a find, a discovery that answered that question, and raised another. The most startling of these was the discovery that visible, directly detectable matter is just over 4% of the total make-up of a universe far larger and more complex than ever suspected at the start of the 20th century. If what we see were all there were, the galaxies would not be, could not be, relatively compact, stable spirals (or their other shapes), but should be torn apart by the speed of their rotation. Outside, among, around, the visible matter of the galaxies was dark matter.
Dark matter was soon joined by the even more mysterious dark energy.
The largest part of Panek's book is devoted to the research to detect and identify dark matter and dark energy, He takes us through not only the science, fascinating enough in itself, but also the human drama as two teams, one primarily physicists and the other primarily astronomers, raced against each other to gather enough observations of sufficiently distant (and therefore ancient) supernovae to answer essential questions about the conditions of the early universe. In the answers to those questions, and questions about changes since that early time, would lie the answers to the reality of dark energy, dark matter, and maybe the ultimate fate of the universe.
This book is not yet published but can be pre-ordered from Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.
Ultimately readable history of the "new" science of cosmology that has led us to know the ultimate fate of our universe. Are there any questions left for cosmologists to answer? Oh yes! The very big one: Why is our universe expanding at an accelerating rate? If it's dark energy, we really know very little about its nature. Why is there so much dark "stuff" as opposed to visible ditto, and why are the proportions of dark matter, dark energy, and baryonic matter what they are?
Cosmology is the branch of modern physics that will ultimately tell us who we are in relation to all reality. This historical narrative lets us know that the people who are finding out why things are just like us even when we lesser beings believe otherwise. Strong personalities, quirky characters, passionate emotions, baser and common natures (jealous, self-aggrandizing, competitive) abound as Panek deploys these actors on the cutting edges of inner and outer space for the reader to get to know.
We're only 4% of all that is. It's a good thing to know there are minds among us devoting there lives to understanding the other 96%.
It's a good read Panek's created that lets one feel a passing acquaintance with the men and women who are acolytes of the "dark side" and a passing familiarity with the invisible bulk of the universe.