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Book Review: The 4 Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality by Richard Panek

The 4 Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of RealityThe 4 Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality by Richard Panek

My Rating: ★★★★☆

Now this is how an honest-to-goodness popular science book ought to be like. The book basically tracks the same story as A Universe from Nothing by Lawrence M. Krauss and even has Lawrence as a character every now and then. Because i was familiar with the story and its ending, this time around I could concentrate on the telling of the story more than the actual events themselves and I was struck by the high contrast of how Richard Panek handles the material and how Krauss had presented it in his book.

Krauss comes at it with a vehemence and a rejoicing attitude as if science has finally solved the big problems with the confirmation of the ‘dunkel stuff’ and from the extension of the flatness of the universe to how it was possible for it to have come from nothing. Throughout the book, the language is forceful and the story is convincing. The scientists know what they are doing and they are finally getting things right was the sonorous message. ‘No doubts entertained’ was Krauss’s attitude and the percentages and the fractions were thrown at us as if there was no contention on those measurements whatsoever. I was convinced and I accepted them. After all, they were coming from a respected scientist who was part of these very breakthroughs. So with a few reservations about how Krauss had not really closed the door with the book, I had concluded my review.

The 4% Universe4% science… 96% stories.

Panek on the other hand has shown me the human version of what happened behind the scenes. Those astronomers and observers who found the standard candles and made the measurements, those theorists who made the elegant theories and the physicists who ran the accelerators in patient search of extreme particles, they were not really all that, exactly. They were mostly guessing and fumbling and playing scattergun. They had no idea whether Type Ia supernovae would really be standard candles, they had no clue why lambda should be non zero or for that matter, what dark matter or dark energy really is.

These uncertainties of the scientific procedure too should be captured when science is written or commented upon and Panek has done that in wonderful fashion. At times his obsession with detail and the pages and pages of detail about the letters exchanged and the worries of each group member of the High-z team and the SCP team does get tedious when the reader already knows the outcome of this famous spat and Panek doesn’t quite manage to achieve the suspense that he tries so hard to build up. But what the detail does provide is an insight into the insecurities and the many mistakes of these Nobel laureates and exposes how almost everything they thought of the universe was wrong and that the Nobel they got was mostly for proving themselves and almost everyone else so completely wrong.

Let There Be Dark

That said, anyone who approaches the book to get answers to the big questions will quickly realize that the book is not about providing answers but about how circuitous the route to finding answers can be. The first half of the book details the work of astronomers discovering in steps, starting from Galileo, that there is more to the universe than what meets the eye. The astronomers progress to seeing the planets, the moon, then the stars and then even the galaxy and then, horror of horrors, other galaxies and clusters of galaxies. The theorists could not keep pace with the speed at which discovery was progressing, lockstep with technology and the theorists lagged far behind, still in the armchair with Newton and Einstein. Meanwhile, the astronomers were going ahead and finding out weirder and weirder things about the universe – they found that the Big Bang was real and had proof in the form of CMBR, they found that the universe is expanding, then that the expansion is accelerating. Then they found that the galaxies rotate too and that the rotation does not slow down towards the edges. The only way they could explain this was to posit a huge amount of ‘dark matter’ on the edges, stabilizing the rotation, only to be derided for reincarnating the discredited ‘ether’ of old days. But, evidence gathered and soon it was accepted. Weird thing, that. It was accepted purely because it solved problems, not because anyone could explain why it was there or what it was doing there, a trend that was soon going to dominate cosmology.

The next step was to come from the laggard theorists. Out of nowhere came the breakthrough idea of an ‘Inflationary universe‘ – now this solved even more problems and also made acceptable a few arbitrary assumptions that the cosmologists had made about the universe such as homogeneity and isotropy. Who could resist that? It was soon standard truth. Now that universe was inflationary and the current state of the universe was satisfactorily explained, the question was how will it end, what is its future? The answer was to find out if the universe was ‘flat’. The mathematics seemed to indicate that it indeed was. But for this, with the existing dark matter and matter put together, there still had to be much more energy (many orders of magnitude) than what the universe we can measure contains. Dark Energy was born, at least on paper. So there we have it, the universe we know, perhaps the universe we can ever know (baryonic matter) is just 4.56% (?) of the real thing.

They had to accept now that there might be less to the universe than what meets the eye. Of course, the theorists and the physicists are still devising new theories to explain away or to prove these unseen problems and millions are spent every month in remote corners with hopes of detecting these elusive stuff, the stuff of the universe.

The best response then, from scientists as well as from those of us trying to make sense of all this, should be humility and a willingness to entertain and rigorously examine the wildest ideas – they seem to have made a habit of coming true.

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Posted by on March 20, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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