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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Making the unfathomable somewhat less so..., 26 April 2011
This review is from: The 4 Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality (Hardcover)
Richard Panek is a translator and elucidator. Those who pursue academic and scientific knowledge have become increasingly specialized, and speak in an esoteric jargon incomprehensible to the rest of humankind, so that, for example, there are only the proverbial 10 individuals who are "qualified" to address Faulkner's views on southern agrarian reform. A more germane example provided by Panek is the process whereby one no longer studies "the heavens," nor even just "supernovae," nor even just one type of them, but rather the type of metals the explosion creates or how photometry is used to measure them. So Panek's feat is a remarkable one: he is knowledgeable in the specialized jargon, and few areas of human endeavor are more esoteric and difficult to comprehend that astrophysics, and has the ability to translate this knowledge into simple, straightforward declarative sentences. Nary an equation is in this book, yet the specialists believe that only equations can convey the truth of a proposition or idea.

Panek commences his story, rather ironically for me, where I left off. In high school, in the `60's, I read George Gamow's The Creation of the Universe (Dover Science Books) and Fred Hoyle's Frontiers of Astronomy. Was the universe in a "steady state", as Hoyle proposed, or was it created by a "Big Bang," as Gamow advocated? It was an open question then, now decided in favor of Gamow. Sadly, I can remember mocking my father, saying: "When you studied chemistry, they had not even discovered the neutron"! Now my son could do the same to me, so out-of-date my own knowledge of "the heavens." Panek's book has helped close that gap.

There is a judicious balance in this book, between the science itself, and the personalities of the individuals who pursue that science. Vera Rubin is one of the "heroes." As a graduate student she examined data that inferred that the universe itself might be rotating. And one thing lead to another, as scientists attempt to reconcile theoretical structures with their observations. The pursuit of supernovas is a dominant theme in the book. They are important due to their relatively short lifetime, and thus, once "standardized," serve as essential signposts for what is occurring in the rest of the universe. The detection techniques have improved so drastically that within a decade it was possible to move from two detections per year to 10-20 per night.

As for the human drama, for better or worse, so much of the knowledge gained is the result of competition for awards and recognition. Panek quotes one of the "big-guns" in the field, Kirshner: "Hey, what's the strongest force in the universe?" "It's not gravity, it's jealousy." Panek drolly notes in a footnote: "Actually, gravity is the weakest of the four forces. But `It's not the strong nuclear, it's jealousy' doesn't really land, as they say in standup." And that is another strength of this book; Panek has a knack for the clever analogy with our generalized knowledge, for example, calling a series of meeting where no progress in made: "a movable famine," and even working in, as an entire chapter, "the curse of the bambino."

And the title? A strange selection that will almost certainly not withstand the test of time, with a revised number probable in 10-years time. Presently, only 4% of the universe is composed of material we thought of as the entire universe back in the `60's, that which is composed of baryons (that is, protons, neutrons, electrons, "the stuff of us," as Panek says). The other 96% is dark matter, and the even far more inexplicable, dark energy, stuff as poorly defined as the neutron was in my father's day. Pursuit of that knowledge goes on, in some rather remarkable places, including a "shed" in the desert and the South Pole.

Having received my copy via the Vine program, it is still early in the "review game." No 1-stars yet, which will be posted by those who feel that Panek stepped too heavily on some toes in the human drama part. In the meantime, I'll post a solid 5-stars for helping bring my own knowledge up to date, and perhaps even avoiding a jab from my own son. Thanks Mr. Panek, and well done.

(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on December 01, 2010)
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