Thursday, 23 April 2009

Einstein’s Telescope – Evalyn Gates ***

Subtitled ‘the hunt for dark matter and dark energy in the universe’, this is a book that doesn’t fulfil its promise. It does have a quite reasonable explanation of general relativity, but that’s just a sideline for the main topic of dark matter and dark energy, and the problem here, I think, is that it is, as yet, a failed hunt. It’s a bit like a true crime book about a murder that was never solved – tantalizing, but never delivering.
Because we don’t know what dark matter and dark energy are, it’s a difficult one to carry forward. This isn’t helped by a certain fixedness of viewpoint. It would have been more interesting if Evalyn Gates had opened up some of the many uncertainties in cosmology, but she presents the Big Bang as effectively certain, telling us ‘[the cosmic microwave background] effectively nailed the case for the Big Bang model’, when it equally supports pretty well all the main alternative theories, and though she briefly opens up the MOND ideas of variations in gravity being responsible for the effect seen as dark matter, then dismisses this in rather summary fashion.
It’s a shame she didn’t spend more time on the alternatives, because this means she is left repeating herself over and over again on the amazing way dark matter and dark energy make up so much of the universe. Take out all this repetition and what’s left verges on an extended magazine article. I personally was not overwhelmed by her style, either. In an attempt to be populist, Gates uses some weak metaphors. For example, she likens the slowing down of light when passing through a material to the slowing down of a politician as she passes through a crowd, glad-handing the people – which I just found embarrassing.
And a final moan – surely it’s time for more imagination in book titles. We’ve had Einstein’s Moon, Einstein’s Refrigerator (two different books of the same name), Einstein’s Heroes, Einstein’s Mistakes, now Einstein’s Telescope… Einstein’s had enough.
A lost cause? No. Not entirely. If you specifically want a good summary of the search for dark matter and the effect of gravitational lensing particularly, plus one of the better attempts I’ve seen at explaining general relativity, it’s hard to criticize. But it’s really only for those with a particular interest in the subject, not for the casual reader.
Review by Peter Spitz

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