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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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Book Review: A Universe from Nothing By Lawrence M. Krauss

A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than NothingA Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing by Lawrence M. Krauss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Krauss has managed to draw an almost perfect normal curve (Bell Curve) with this book as far as engagement and content is concerned.

The Start of the Curve

It starts slow by promising us a full whirlwind historic tour from Galileo to CMBR and beyond and takes its own sweet time getting to even Einstein and then dwells on the most known aspects of modern science as if no one has heard of all that before.

The Rise

Then as I was contemplating postponing the book for some future date, Krauss suddenly draws himself up to his full commanding ivory tower height and things suddenly get hard to comprehend. Now I was perked, this was what I was there with him for, after all.

The Peak of the Curve

Maybe it is because that was the only part of the book which I knew not enough about. I had read about the fact that the only way to explain the universe is to postulate an inflationary scenario for the early universe but Krauss puts it in terms which no other author which I have read has done. He makes it beautiful, breath-taking and completely believable that in a few micro seconds the universe expanded by an order of magnitude of 24 and attained the final shape that we see now! And he systematically charts out how this theory was derived based on observed size and density of universe, based on postulated energy of empty space, based on curvature of the universe and on the nature of acceleration of distant ‘standard candles’. During this part of the book as well as the part in which he lists out the reasons for why the universe we live in is flat and accelerating and dominated by energy (as against mass, ie, by repulsive force of acceleration than by attractive force of gravity) and then slam-dunks it in by explaining how all this can only be explained by an inflationary early universe.

The Dip

Just as I was bristling with all the new knowledge and information and thinking of the rave review this book is gonna get and about how knowledgeable I was going to be as I finish it, Krauss grinds the journey to a screeching halt as far as science is concerned. He takes a major left turn and plunges into an entire chapter on speculating if scientists wo trillion years into the future can ever find out the true nature of the universe. The anser is no. All evidence of the origins of universe would be lost or obscured by then and Kraus concludes that it is possible that even with the best scientific method, minds and far advanced technology, it is posible to reach the wrong conclusions. In face no matter how advanced that civilization is they will never know of a world beyond their own meta-galaxy! This is a wonderful thought an Richard Dawkins comments extensively on it in the afterword but surely it didn’t warrant so many pages in al already small book? But in spite of the boring nature of the chapter, it is sill a very profound one – All our attempts to understand anything is limited by the presence of physical evidence, so we must also think about what might already have been obscured from us in the 13.odd billion years of the universe and this is especially true if the inflationary hypothesis is correct because an inflation like that would be like a flood over a crime scene. So the chapter is about humility even though Krauss tried to make it into an argument about why we live in a very special time, the only time we can wonder why it is special. This is again a clear opening to fit a god-of-the-gaps into. I am amazed at how many new avenues Krauss has opened up in this book. Is he secretly against Dawkins and Hitchens?

The Lower End

And then he shifts into trying to explain the universe in terms of the Anthropic Principle which I have a tough time accepting even though I agree with the sturdy logic of it. I just feel it is Wrong, that is all, to explain things by saying that we wouldn’t be here to talk about it if it were not so and that is the answer.

The interest is still held fo a while as he does a critical analysis of string theory and concludes that it is a wonderful mathematical and theoretical edifice but it has proven/predicted not one single observation in 25 years or so and hence is more or less a dead-end. He plainly asks the common reader to get over the string theory hype and stop talking about String Theory to show how knowledgeable you are. If anyone talks of string theory and TOE to you, count on the fact that he heard about some stuff during the Great Hype and never bothered enough to understand or keep up-to-date.

The Long Tail of the Curve

And then comes the low point of the book, which Krauss probably put in only to gain traction with Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. The long rant about religious claims and about their argument about “How can something come out of nothing” – the only answer is that it does, it still is happening and something can also go back into nothing in the future. So what does that prove? Not much I think except to accept that the universe is right strange, brotha. Then comes the epilogue about how science has to be respected and all that Carl Sagan stuff as science as a candle in the dark, the normal curve tending towards zero on the tail now, reader barely awake.

The Anomaly

And finally, the book winds down with a poetic afterword by Dawkins registering a major upturn anomaly in the normal curve towards the very end. (any good normal distribution will have the outliers after all).

Takeaways

The reader can come way from the book with a feeling that he now knows some ‘deep’ quantum kick-ass fundamentals without having been stretched as much as, say, a Brian Greene would do to you in The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory. This must be the reason for the sudden popularity of the book and comparisons with ‘The Origin of Species’ and with A Brief History of Time as the next great opening of windows by science and as the final nail in the coffin that Darwin built for religion. Richard Dawkins sure sounds very pep in his afterword, as if, now that this book is out, no more argument is possible.

I am not to sure about that of course. Ultimately the book is making the claim that everything we can measure and see and know anything at all about, ever, is just 1% of the universe. That is to say that physics can never know anything about 99% of what exist in the universe. Now, that is dangerous territory and can play right into the hands of religious aficionados. I wonder why Dawkins was elated by the book and not feverishly going back to the drawing board to counter all the hundreds of nonsensical faith-based claims that can crop up from this information.

Final Word

In the end, I liked the book. It was worth the read for that amazing middle portion and for the analysis on string theory. but to compare it with The Origin of Species as a landmark work or to talk as if it is the definitive word in the argument strikes me as hyperbole. It is a well-written work accessible to the lay-reader that tries to explain how much modern science does not know. If that fills you with a sense of wonder, this is the book for you.

Post Script

PS. I really don’t get why Ian McEwan turned up to comment on the cover. Some mix up? Hmm…

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Posted by on February 15, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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