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Frustrating narrative: science written as science fiction
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.