Saturday, 5 November 2011

The Edge of Physics – Anil Ananthaswamy *****

When I first came across this book, I groaned a little. Yet another ‘story of the mysteries of cosmology’ title. Was there anything left to say? I’m pleased to say that my groan was unnecessary – this is one of the most enjoyable popular sciencebooks I’ve read all year. Although there’s nothing new in the science itself, the main thread of Anil Ananthaswamy’s book is a tour of the remarkable places where the expanding universe, dark matter, dark energy, the Higgs boson and more are being pursued. At each location we get some excellent historical context – I loved, for example, how he puts across the feel of the early days at the Mount Wilson observatory.
What makes this so enjoyable are the extremes of the locations where this leading edge physics takes place. One moment we are perched on a snow-covered mountain in California, the next we are in a deep mine. As we reach CERN we are plunged into a vast underground empire that any Bond villain would be proud of… only to contrast this with an experiment using a vast block of Antarctic ice as a neutrino detector. I’m a big fan of Bill Bryson’s travel books, and while Ananthaswamy doesn’t have Bryson’s humour and homeliness, he does succeed in painting an excellent word picture of these locations, the people he meets and the far-reaching work that is being carried on there.
My only reservation with the book is that the science is mostly presented as if it is 100 percent fact, rather than our current best guess – something that, let’s face it, is all it can be with cosmology (as in ‘There’s speculation, then there’s more speculation, then there’s cosmology’). For example dark matter is presented as if it were as certain as normal matter. In fact what we know is that the gravitational force calculation comes up with the wrong value at the level of galaxies. This could mean that the mass is wrong (hence dark matter), that the distances are wrong, or that Newton/Einstein are wrong on the scale of galaxies. Dark matter is the best supported possibility – but it remains just this. I think not to make this clear does cosmology no favours.
I accept, though, that it is particularly easy to fall into fallacious fact-speak when the detail of the science is not the main thrust of the book. You want to get the science out of the way in an easy, approachable fashion so you can concentrate on the travel book/history of science aspects. And bearing that in mind, I can easily overlook that reservation, because this is such a good, well-written book. If you want to get a feel for where the mysteries of the universe are wrestled with, I can’t think of a better book to pick up. You’ll be swept away by Ananthaswamy’s expert storytelling.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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