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 (US is hardback):  
Also on audio CD:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…