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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: Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us about Being Human

Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us about Being HumanSupergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us about Being Human by Grant Morrison

My Rating: ★★☆☆☆

In the title of Supergods, Grant Morrison seems to be promising an exploration of ‘What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God From Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human’. Does he live up to that promise? No. If you take up this book expecting moral philosophy or some kind of analysis on how the values in our fiction will help us be better humans, boy, are you in for a disappointment.

I have a sulky feeling that the only reason Grant published this book was to take advantage of the predicted upsurge in importance of comics that his pet theories tell him and the reason why publishers went ahead was to cash in on the sudden elevation in the status of pulp comics following Nolan’s reinvigoration of Batman.

So with a serious sounding title and an alluring subject matter, Morrison proceeds to happily serve up a brew of 75 years worth of comic book history, his own bildungsroman and literary criticism on his colleagues and praise for his favorites. The history that he presents is thoroughly colored by his own biases, but at least he never makes an attempt at projecting a dispassionate observer persona. The book is cursory and without focus for the most part; the history is too superficial for an ardent fan and would be way too detailed to serve as an introduction to comics. The analysis that he attempts to bring to the art of story-telling has already been done in much better fashion by Scott McCloud and the evolution of ideas and causal connection to real historical events could also have been better handled by a historian or in conjunction with one. The constant comparisons to Beatles, to Picasso and to Wagner, among others, makes one feel like Morison is trying too hard to fit something that we all know to be a mass product to the exclusive category of High Art.

Almost half the book is about the Golden and Silver ages which saw the birth of Superman and was followed by a burgeoning pantheon of copy-cat heroes like Batman and soon by original and radical version like Captain Marvel. One of Morrison’s pet ideas is the idea of the author inserting himself into the page. He gives a detailed analysis of how this grew in him and of his experiments in sending a 2D version of himself into the comic world to interact with the characters and this makes more and more sense as he himself blends into the narrative of the book in the last two-thirds and the book becomes more an autobiography than a history. Of course, the book becomes a completely psychedelic trip at this point with Morrison using up most of the remaining pages to convince us that he is God’s agent on earth to spread peace and truth. These quasi-religious ideas and Morrison’s long rants about peers soon make the book seem loose and untidy and it just plain comes apart in the last few chapters and all the good impression one might have built up for the book erodes away as the reader struggles through Morrison’s repeated assurances that there is more to the world than what we see and that extra-dimensional super heroes has made him the vessel to reach us through his art. As we close the book, even though we are thoroughly impressed by the force of his language and the wild imaginative scope of his ideas, it would be an effort in credulity to take Morrison or the book too seriously. At the very least, it pointed me to some excellent graphic novels and artists. For that and for the writing style, an extra star.

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Posted by on March 15, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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Book Review: Isaac Newton by James Gleick

Isaac NewtonIsaac Newton by James Gleick

My Rating: ★★☆☆☆

I read this to compliment my reading of Quiet by Susan Cain, thinking that studying the life of one of the most famous introverts will give me greater insight.

But all James Gleick provides is a cursory summary of Newton’s work and hardly touches on his personal life and not at all on his character or personality. The book is also a history of the enlightenment age, the growth of the Royal Society, of the rivalries that drove its growth, and the role they played in transmission of information.

How can one understand a man willing to fill millions of words worth of pages with new and imaginative thrusts into the unknown, with no intention to publish and only giving them away in reluctant small portions; a man who took 30 years to publish his greatest work. Even after he became famous, he resorted to publishing under the cloak of anonymity about his own works as well as his critics.

Newton was told by his well-wishers that this withholding of his work only helped in losing recognition for himself and benefit for others. This was sadly illustrated when Leibniz published his own version of Calculus – this prompted Newton to finally bring out his own better and earlier version and start a fiery rivalry which overshadowed their achievements and constricted the growth of mathematics for almost a decade. But one good thing did came out of this – Newton started bringing out texts that he had kept hidden till then.

He was also a dedicated pursuer of biblical and ancient texts, convinced that the ancients knew secrets hidden in these symbolisms. Another strange fact was that Newton made more money from being in charge of the public money minting office than from his scientific enquiries – He was the one who standardized England’s currency and made major contributions to economics and public policy too.

The most intriguing part of the book is when Gleick details out Newton – The Alchemist, probably the greatest of the esoteric order. It was another of the various facets of his life and enquiry that he never made public and came to light only years after his death. This was in fact the cause of his death – the mercury poisoning that resulted from his fascinated constant handling of ‘quicksilver’ which he believed to be the essence of all metals.

While I cannot say that the book was of much use in aiding an understanding of Newton, the man, or that it was a detailed history of his thoughts and works, at the very least, I will never talk about how modern science killed Newtonian Physics. His vision of the universe was as metaphysical as the latest quantum advances, even though the most critics he ever had in his life was for these very metaphysical elements in his ‘Optics’.

He was careful to only present to the public those ideas which he could back up by experimentation, but this does not mean that this powerful mind did not explore and push the same boundaries that we now grapple with in the vast eternities of his solitude.

He was a scientist, alchemist, philosopher, epistemologist, economist, a theologian, and the last of the magicians; combining and distilling all of this vast knowledge into the simple truths that we all know today. Newton was a great of the modern age, not of a quaint age which we have surpassed as we like to imagine.

I would like to agree with Byron as he sang, “Man fell with apples; and with apples rose.”

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Posted by on March 10, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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Book Review: Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman

Einstein's DreamsEinstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Some of the best fun I have had in recent years of reading came in the two hours it took me to read this (including frantic back-tracks and hop-skips). Time is the hero of this collection and comes veiled in every twisted garb we can conceive, or rather, that Einstein can dream up. Einstein in his mad canter towards discovering the most revolutionary idea in science tumbles right down an imaginary wonderland in this book.

What comes out of the recesses of Einstein’s brooding on the nature of time and its relation to our lives is a montage of dreams that stretch our imagination to its limits. Time goes backwards, becomes personal, loops in on itself, slows down and speeds up according to your speeds and even stops altogether in his various dreams. But in the process we also see our own natures reflected in these bizarre behaviors that Einstein (or rather Lightman) subjects our protagonist to.

While each of the ‘worlds’ are immensely entertaining and thought-provoking, the real crux of the book comes out in the interludes, which are the only times we meet the dreamer – Einstein. The book is an exploration of the twists and turns of the creative process, of the blind alleys and the arcane notions, the tomfoolery and the Baudelaire circus contortions that the creative imagination has to be twisted to before a coherent idea emerges.

Of the dreams, numbering around thirty, some are particularly imaginative while others are variations on earlier themes. At first I was disappointed to encounter these variations and slight modifications, until I realized that Einstein, the dreamer/thinker, has to revisit ideas and try these mutations before he can proceed with them or discard them. Some of the ideas had to be short, some elaborate, some gripping, some boring and some outlandishly silly.

But through it all, the constant feeling, almost magical, of being part of this evolution of thought and of peering into the wildest musings (even if imagined) that led to the conception of time as we know today makes the book a treasure to be revisited and indulged in at every opportunity.

Did I mention that I read the book three times today?

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Posted by on March 4, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Poetry, Thoughts

 

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