11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on 7 August 2011
The story told in this book is one of the great discoveries of modern times and it is good that someone has chosen to tell it. However I found it rather difficult to follow the science because of the continuous insertion of biographical material - and this became quite frustrating at times. Because of the many people involved there is a lot of this and the science and the discovery get rather lost. Perhaps the biographical material should have been kept in separate chapters from the scientific development. It lacks the conciseness and breathtaking excitement of the 'Double Helix' by James Watson - another thrilling tale of an elegant and truly great discovery. Perhaps discoveries by one or two people are intrinsically more interesting than team events. However it is still well worth buying just to hear the tale.
I should perhaps mention another disappointment in this account which is the relegation of the WMAP probe to a passing mention - I think a full account of this would have made a good chapter in its own right.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 29 September 2012
Cosmology is a complex subject to cover for non-specialists, because there's always quite a long and necessary background story, reviewing the science that has led us to the start point of the book.
But this book is written in the style of a fiction novel, with a scene being set and a drama enacted. I guess the very first paragraph of the book shows what I mean:
"in the beginning - which is to say, 1965 - the universe was simple. It came into being one noontime early that year over the course of a telephone conversation. Jim Peebles was sitting in the office of his mentor and frequent collaborator, the Princeton physicist Robert Dicke, along with two other colleagues. The phone rang; Dicke took the call. Dicke helped run a research firm on the side, and he himself held dozens of patents. During these weekly lunches in his office, he sometime got phone calls that were full of esoteric and technical vocaulary that Peebles knew intimately - concepts the four physicists had been discussing that very afternoon. Cold load, for instance: a device that would help calibrate the horn antenna - another term Peebles overheard - that they would be using to try to detect a special signal from space. The three physicists grew quiet and looked at Dicke. Dicke thanked the caller and hung up, then turned to his colleages and said, "Well boys, we've been scooped."
Don't expect the style to settle down - it doesn't. It's something like a radio panel show game, with contestants given a task "Explain a scientific story in the style of an Inspector Rebus novel". It's just inappropriate, frustrating; and very soon the recession velocity of useful information exceeds the cosmic attention span, and one just gives up.
Not only that, but the book's title doesn't fit with the content: "The 4% Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality". Unless I've missed something really important, although the indirect evidence for dark matter and energy of empty space is pretty much unimpeachable, dark matter particles themselves have yet to be detected. So I hoped to read a book about the subject described in the title, and the scientific race/quest to complete the picture.
Nah, if you're interested in the cosmology, don't waste your time: this is a book about teams you're not interested in, full of names you don't care about, competing with each other to directly observe something which has yet to be observed. If this were an Inspector Rebus novel (or any other novel), we'd feel short-changed (to say the least) if the story had no conclusion. But if this is a race, it is a race that has not ended.
If you, like me, are interested in reading about the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy, what we know, what and why we conjecture, and how open questions are being addressed and proofs are being sought; I think you're likely to be as disappointed as me by this book.
If you're one of the guys in the story (probably the USA side of the story) and you want to read about yourself in a narrative, maybe you'll quite like it.
Okay, lastly in this review, since it's actually a book about a race between a few global teams to discover a dark matter particle, I'd like to wish good luck to Dr Sean Paling and his team at the Boulby Underground Science Facility, who are in the UK's part of this race. I think it's important to wish them well, since this book full of names doesn't even mention their existence, neither reference any of their experiments.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 5 June 2012
This is what I would call a very 'thorough' book, and I think readers' enjoyment (hence their * rating) will depend upon the balance of their interests between the science and the history. I have read a number of this type before and my inclination is towards the science but with an interest in the history as well.
This book covers the science quite well, and in a fair bit of detail (though sometimes the descriptions seem a bit bland even if they are lengthy). But it is overwhelmingly about the history of the discoveries and the relationships between the different, sometimes competing, individual researchers, and teams. So the book could be said to be about 25-30% science, and the rest narrative. It is quite a long read too, so eventually I found myself sneaking a look at where the notes, references, index, etc started, to see how near the finishing line I was getting! That meant that my rating is down a bit, but I am sure others will enjoy it more, as it undoubtedly a good book.
An example is the historic phone call between two sets of researchers who were investigating background radiation from the sky that came to be known as the Cosmic Microwave Backgound. Not only is there the obligatory mention of the content of the call itself, but in later threads there are further references to it such as 'this was the same room that ...', and 'this was the day that...'. All this perhaps is a reflection of the description of his work as "writing on science and culture" in various publications and books, trying to set the whole research programme in context.
As with other books I have read, the narrative repeatedly reverts in time to trace through each thread of the investigations and discoveries from initial ideas to the latest situation. As a bit of an aside, I would be fascinated to see someone try and take a broader front through time, with the concurrent investigations described 'together' chapter by chapter, using a single pass from 'then' to 'now'. Don't know if it would work though!
I would recommend this particularly to prospective readers that have perhaps a preference for the historical part of the story.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Cosmology, the science of the origin, evolution and the ultimate fate of the Universe, is a surprisingly young scientific discipline. For the most of history cosmological questions were dealt with through a philosophical or theological inquiry, but in the early part of the twentieth century it became possible to inquire about these things in a more systematic and scientific manner. The research in Cosmology really gained steam since the 1960s, when the discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) put the Big Bang Theory on a very firm footing. However, the subsequent inquiry revealed something really intellectually curious and potentially disturbing about the Universe: we can only see a very tiny fraction of it. The vast proportion of the "stuff" that makes up the Universe, about 96% of it to be more precise, is invisible. We can only infer its existence from the gravitational effects it has on the "visible" matter. This "invisible" stuff came to be known by a very prosaic couple of names: dark matter and dark energy.
The aim of "The 4% Universe" is to explain our best current understanding of what the dark matter and the dark energy are. The book provides some good physics background to all of these phenomena, and tries to explain how the observation and the research into these topics have progressed over the last half a century or so. Unfortunately, this book goes way overboard in taking the inside look at the workings of the physicists and the astronomers who do research on dark matter and dark energy. It narrates, in painful details sometimes, the comings and goings of the select groups of scientists as they conduct their research, grapple with work-family balance, and engage in petty turf wars with their colleagues and other competing research collaborations. For the most of the book I found myself bored to death with these minutiae - and I am a scientist! Furthermore, I found the information on the actual science, and physics aspects of it in particular, incredibly thin. Reading the Wikipedia articles on this topic is way more informative. This is definitely not a book that I would recommend to anyone who wants to learn more about the Universe and its dark secrets.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 13 October 2012
Wow! A different approach to science books, more like a thrilling race through 100 years of detective work, scientific analysis, politics and human dedication to arrive at the frontiers of the universe. That we are stardust, born from dying stars, that the stuff we and everything we see is just 4% of the weight of the universe, that DARK STUFF we cannot yet detect is pushing, expanding, creating space at an increasing acceleration!
I mean WoW - I feel glad that I live still to have understood this thinking.
Panek's book is excellent, gripping, I just read and read until I finished it. The scientists characters are brought to life. The science is kept as simple as it possibly can, but will be a challenge (a good one) for the layman/woman.
The great thing is that he ends each chapter with a conclusion that prepares you for the next part of the journey.
I look at the stars in the dark night and I am awed.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 19 March 2013
If you are expecting a hard nosed science book such as: 'Why Does E= mc2?' 'A brief history of Time' or 'The Quantum Universe' then you will be disappointed. What Panek has produced however is a thoroughly researched, semi biographical account of the lives and work of the key scientific protagonists in dark matter and dark energy investigation, that following the discovery of the Higgs boson, lies at the frontier of particle research.
At times the pace of the science can be frustratingly slow and the biographical detail a little florid. Nevertheless, the author paints a compelling human picture of academic research: the rivalries and tensions, the personal sacrifices, the funding crises, the ground breaking insights, failures and even the tragedies.
The human narrative is based around two rival teams of researchers vying to be the first to discover and publish their findings with respect to dark matter and energy and thus the future of the universe. What makes this story fascinating and the rivalry so intense is the fact that the teams come from the very different disciplines of astronomy and particle physics - with different academic modus operandi and cultures.
Panek adroitly outlines the study of supernovae which led to the dramatic conclusion that the expansion of the universe is actually accelerating, rather than slowing as would be predicted by Newtonian theories of gravity. He describes how this in turn led to the revival of Einstein's cosmological constant, initially seen by physicists as a fudge and later discarded with Hubble's discovery of an expanding universe through inflation. Subsequent discussion leads inexorably into the hypothesis of dark matter - bizarre enough and then stranger still -dark energy as the catalyst of this acceleration.
Less important than whether dark matter consists of axions or neutralinos is the paradigmal shift that dark matter and energy research caused in moving cosmology from the realm of meta physics to particle physics. Crucially such research has also shifted the emphasis of astronomy from the study of the visible parts of the electromagnetic spectrum to the study of the dark invisible longer wavelengths.
The author ends by suggesting tantalizing quantum based multi universe explanations for dark energy effects and concludes that future developments in our understanding are dependent on the reconciliation of the physics of the very large with that of the very small i.e. the evolution of a quantum theory of gravity.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 11 March 2013
Although the title refers to 4%, the book is actually about the 96%! It tells how the unseen universe of dark matter and dark energy was deduced.
Here is a rather unusual approach for a science book. It is a story that Richard Panek tells through the aspirations, actions and achievements of a host of individuals. There is a cast list of hundreds and while key characters are a constant presence, many others - as in any drama - are bit players.
Sometimes for one who wants to follow the scientific thread, it is disconcerting to have to remember who did which with whom to produce what. Nevertheless the book rattles along at brisk pace dwelling in some detail on one of the big set pieces: the rivalry between the High-z team at Berkeley and the SCP team at Harvard to determine whether the expansion of the universe was slowing or accelerating. So many names were mentioned that even on re-reading I am not entirely sure who headed these teams. The rivalry was about personal kudos but also concerned the practical matter of getting finance.
If you want to understand the insights that yield theories and then the tedious business of observation to demonstrate the validity of the idea, this book gives a good idea of what goes on. Richard Panek interviewed over ninety scientists in researching the book as well as publications: the bibliography runs to a 150 references. I'm sure it is an entirely accurate picture but for the general reader the personal details intrude and make everything rather more complex than it need be.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 10 January 2013
Being a science and sci-fi geek I bought this, on sale, and was quite looking forward to it. I was aware of dark matter and energy, in as much as I had read bits about them and understood that there were a lot of questions to be answered about what they were. I left this book better informed than when I started and for that I am thankful.
Reading this I felt an unease at what I felt was an abundance of biographical details about the scientists and a lack of information about the science. I wondered if it was just me, but having read other reviews it is clear this is a view shared by other readers. This ultimately will be the opinion I take from this book.
Readable yes, but lacking the detail and information I would have wanted from a popular science book on this subject.
21 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on 6 February 2011
To be honest, I was disappointed in this book. I was expecting a text that told the development of the development of scientific ideas and evidence, but was rewarded with rather dumbed down science and an obsession with the personalities involved.
It is almost as if the author is unwilling to present the science for fear of losing his readers, but as a result it is handled timidly and without conviction and leaves more questions unanswered than than resolved. The author goes to great complexity to explain diagrams; it would have been much simpler to have included them. Given the keen interest in people and personalities it is surprising that no photographs have been included of the main protagonists.
Fortunately the book is not too long and proceeds at a decent pace. It is readable and retains one's attention. It makes low demands on the reader, and that is indeed my complaint. Had it been written at the level of, say, Scientific American, it would have been a great book but alas it isn't.
on 19 February 2015
The actual content of the book I would rate around 3 stars: this book is OK, but there is neither any particularly detailed science nor any particularly interesting narrative: a bit too rambly and it doesn't pick up pace or really go anywhere interesting.
The cardinal sin however is that this book hasn't been proofread in the slightest. It is the book with the most errors I have ever seen in my life. Repeated words, random punctuation in sentences, and so many sentences read as though they are written in a stream of consciousness style - they haven't been read and edited into a format acceptable for a book. As a paying customer you do expect a book to have been read through by someone and corrected for all these errors, but there are at least 100 in the book which makes it very hard to read. Shame.