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The 4-Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality Paperback – 1 Feb 2011
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'Richard Panek has written a contemporary adventure story of modern-day explorers who venture forth into the universe not by ships, but by telescopes and satellites. Like adventure stories of old, there are visionaries, heroes, patrons, and, perhaps, a few pirates. A riveting book.' --Lee Smolin, author of The Trouble with Physics
'Modern cosmology tackles some of the biggest questions we have about the nature of the cosmos. In The 4-Percent Universe, Richard Panek brings this quest down to a human scale. The rivalries, the surprises, and the excitement are brought vividly to life. People are a very tiny percentage of the universe, but we remain the most interesting part.' --Sean Carroll, author of From Eternity to Here
'Richard Panek turns astronomers and physicists into real (and sometimes likeable) characters. You can feel the tension as two rival groups race to discover the fate of the universe. We see scientists as real people, warts and all. Panek turns potentially baffling science into a tense story of rivalry and discovery.' --Brian Clegg, author of Before the Big Bang and Armageddon Science
“The 4-Percent Universe is a lively and well-researched account of the personalities and ambitions of modern scientists.”(Alan Lightman - author of Einstein’s Dreams) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title. See all Product description
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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.
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.