Skip to main content

The 4% Universe – Richard Panek ****

The ‘four percent’ in the title of this book refers to the apparently true but bizarre fact that only 4% of the universe seems to be ordinary stuff – from planets to stars – with twenty-odd percent of the remainder dark matter and the rest dark energy, the unknown phenomenon that is forcing the expansion of the universe to accelerate.
Don’t come to this book hoping to find out what dark matter and dark energy are – because there’s a long way to go before those questions can be definitively answered – but instead you will find an in-depth history of the process by which the (probable) existence of dark matter and dark energy were discovered.
Richard Panek is at his best when describing human beings in action, rather than covering the details of physics or cosmology. He really takes the reader in to experience the astronomers, astrophysicists and cosmologists (surprisingly different beasts) at work. We begin to understand how these people work, what drives them and what they really think. We also see that these really are human beings, particularly in the rivalry and at times downright antagonism between two teams, one primarily astronomers, the other primarily physicists, who were at the forefront of the discovery of dark energy in the late 1990s.
There are two problems with this approach, though. One is that we are dealing with quite a large cast, few of whom are given big enough parts to really stand out – so often the reader, for example, can forget which of the two camps a particular scientist belongs to. Although we get a real feeling of knowing a couple of the names, it does get a bit overwhelming. What also gets overwhelming is the depth Panek goes into with the detail of discovery.
There’s a parallel here with the book A Grand and Bold Thing, where Ann Finkbeiner goes into a lot of detail of what happened in the development of the Sloane Digital Sky Survey. Our reviewer loved it, but I have seen another review bemoaning the Finkbeiner’s approach of covering ever little step. Similarly, if I’m honest, I got a touch bored with some of the trivia of discovery that Panek explored. The suspicion has to be that, having got access to detailed information from those involved, he was reluctant not to mention everything he heard – but this could have done with tighter editing.
The other problem with the focus on the people is that I’m not entirely sure that Panek always understands the science – there are one or two moments when he makes a statement that seems entirely wrong as far as the physics goes, but is swept away by the flow of the narrative so you don’t really notice it. For example he tells us that the anthropic principle is the term for the idea that inflation implies that there are 10500 inflationary bubbles, each its own universe. First of all, inflation doesn’t require this, it is just one possible implication, but secondly, the anthropic principle (which comes in two distinct forms) is not anything to do with inflation per se. It merely would explain why, if there were 10500 universes, we happened to live in this one.
A final niggle – the writing can be a touch pretentious. This doesn’t come across when Panek is at his best, telling us the personal stories of scientists and their work. But when he tries to take the overview we get sentiments like ‘… the award ceremony at Cambridge wasn’t only about posterity. It was about history, and history was something else. History was posterity in motion.’ Groan.
Don’t get me wrong. This is a great book for getting into the minds of those involved in these discoveries and for understanding more about how modern astronomy and cosmology works. I do recommend it. But the book’s limitations are strong enough that they can’t be entirely overlooked.

Paperback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The World According to Physics - Jim Al-Khalili *****

There is a temptation on seeing this book to think it's another one of those physics titles that is thin on content, so they put it in an odd format small hardback and hope to win over those who don't usually buy science books. But that couldn't be further from the truth. In Jim Al-Khalili's The World According to Physics, we've got the best beginners' overview of what physics is all about that I've ever had the pleasure to read.

The language is straightforward and approachable. Rather than take the more common historical approach that builds up physics the way it was discovered, Al-Khalili starts with the 'three pillars' of physics: relativity, quantum theory and thermodynamics. In simple language with never an equation nor even a diagram in sight, the book lays out what physics is all about, what it has achieved and what it still needs to do.

That bit about no diagrams is an important indicator of how approachable the text is. Personally, I'm no…

Until the End of Time: Brian Greene ***

Things start well with this latest title from Brian Greene: after a bit of introductory woffle we get into an interesting introduction to entropy. As always with Greene's writing, this is readable, chatty and full of little side facts and stories. Unfortunately, for me, the book then suffers something of an increase in entropy itself as on the whole it then veers more into philosophy and the soft sciences than Greene's usual physics and cosmology.

So, we get chapters on consciousness, language, belief and religion, instinct and creativity, duration and impermanence, the ends of time and, most cringe-making as a title, 'the nobility of being'. Unlike the dazzling scientific presentation I expect, this mostly comes across as fairly shallow amateur philosophising.

Of course it's perfectly possible to write good science books on, say, consciousness or language - but though Greene touches on the science, there far too much that's more hand-waving. And good though he i…

Jim Al-Khalili - Four Way Interview

Jim Al-Khalili hosts The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4 and has presented numerous BBC television documentaries. He is Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey, a New York Times bestselling author, and a fellow of the Royal Society. He is the author of numerous books, including Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed; The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance; and Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology. The paperback of his novel Sunfall is published in March 2020 by Transworld. His latest book is The World According to Physics.


Why physics?

I fell in love with physics when I was 13 or 14, when I realised not only that I was pretty good at it at school – basically common sense and puzzle solving – but because it was the subject that answered the big questions I had started contemplating, like whether the stars in the night sky went on for ever, what they were ma…