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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

But...

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.
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on 19 March 2016
This book is very poor. Its merely descriptive and not very analytical or explanatory. It seems to be all about the personalities involved and there are lots of them. It is sooo boring. I forced myself to get about 3/4 the way through but knew no more about the science than I did before I read it. If you are interested in this subject watch some of Brian Greene's You tube videos on the subject. They are free and really informative.
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on 19 October 2013
I would have preferred to see a little more setting out of the science in between the no doubt interesting stuff about the personalities involved. Then I am a rather stuffy sort of chap.
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on 29 April 2013
Anyone interested in the universe will find this book interesting and informative. We may be hearing much more on this topic in future years.
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on 9 August 2014
Marvellous! Many thanks will buy again from this seller.
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on 5 January 2015
Quite a complicated story. I had to go back over it from time to time in order to catch up but I learned a great deal about cosmology. The scientists are competitive but heart warmingly willing to share their knowledge.
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