The 4-Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality Hardcover – January 10, 2011
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In recent years, a handful of scientists have been racing to explain a disturbing aspect of our universe: only 4 percent of it consists of the matter that makes up you, me, our books, and every star and planet. The rest is completely unknown.
Richard Panek tells the dramatic story of how scientists reached this cosmos-shattering conclusion. In vivid detail, he narrates the quest to find the "dark" matter and an even more bizarre substance called dark energy. The scientists involved in this search--Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt, and Adam Riess--shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for their efforts.
But these scientists were not all working together. The 4% Universe offers an intimate portrait of the bitter rivalries and fruitful collaborations, the eureka moments and blind alleys that fueled their search, redefined science, and reinvented the universe. Drawing on in-depth, on-site reporting and hundreds of interviews, Panek does for cosmology what others have done for biology, sports, and finance: He tells a fascinating story that illuminates the inner workings of a particular (and in this case, particularly unfamiliar) world.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. Our view of the cosmos is profoundly wrong, and Copernicus was only the beginning: not just Earth, but all common matter is a marginal part of existence. Panek’s fast-paced narrative, filled with behind-the-scenes details, brings this epic story to life for the very first time.
Q: What is the "four percent universe"?
Panek: It’s the universe we’ve always known, the one that consists of everything we see: you, me, Earth, Sun, planets, stars, galaxies.
Q: What’s the other 96 percent?
Panek: The stuff we can’t see in any form whatsoever. At a loss for words, astronomers have given these missing ingredients the names "dark matter" and "dark energy."
Q: What are dark matter and dark energy?
Panek: If you find out, book yourself a flight to Stockholm.
Q: So nobody knows? We're not talking about "dark" as in black holes?
Panek: No. This is "dark" as in unknown for now and possibly forever.
Q: Well, then, what do astronomers mean by "dark matter"?
Panek: A mysterious substance that comprises about 23 percent of the universe.
Q: And dark energy?
Panek: Something even more mysterious that comprises about 73 percent of the universe.
Q: Okay, 73 and 23 add up to 96 percent, which does leave a four percent universe. But if we don’t know what dark matter and dark energy are, how do we even know they’re there?
Panek: In the 1970s, astronomers observed that the motions of galaxies, including our own Milky Way, seem to be violating the universal law of gravitation. They’re spinning way too fast to survive more than a single rotation, yet we know that our galaxy has gone through dozens of rotations in its billions of years of life. Galaxies are living fast but not dying young—a fact that makes sense only if we say that there’s more matter out there, gravitationally holding galaxies and even clusters of galaxies together, than we can see. Astronomers call this substance dark matter.
Q: And the mysterious dark energy?
Panek: In the 1990s, two independent teams of astronomers set out to discover the fate of the universe. They knew the universe was born in a big bang and has been expanding ever since. Now they wanted to know how much the mutual gravitation among all this matter—dark or otherwise—was affecting the expansion of the universe. Enough to slow it down so that the universe would eventually grind to a halt, then collapse on itself? Or just enough that the expansion would grind to a halt and stay there? In 1998 the two teams came to the same conclusion: the expansion of the universe isn’t slowing down at all. In fact, it’s speeding up. And whatever force is counteracting gravity is what they call dark energy.
Q: Do astronomers have any clue as to what dark matter and dark energy might be?
Panek: Yes and no. As for dark matter, they think it might be one of two subatomic particles, but physicists have been looking for these particles for thirty years and still haven’t found them. As for dark energy, they don’t even have an idea of what it might be. They’re still trying to figure out how it behaves. Does it change over space and time or not? If they can answer that question, then they can start to worry about what dark energy is.
Q: If astronomers themselves don’t know what dark matter and dark energy are, why should people believe that they exist?
Panek: Scientists like to quote a saying of Carl Sagan’s: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Many astronomers in the 1970s strongly resisted the idea of dark matter until the evidence became overwhelming. And even the two teams of astronomers that discovered the evidence for dark energy in 1998 resisted the idea until they could no longer come up with another explanation.
Q: Sounds like science is a pretty straightforward process of discovery and follow-up.
Panek: Straightforward, maybe. Pretty, no. As I show in The Four Percent Universe, the discoveries involved a lot of behind-the-scenes rivalries that sometimes turned ugly—rivalries that continue to this day. But in a way, these rivalries have been good for the science. When scientists who would like nothing more than to prove one another wrong wind up agreeing on a weird result, their peers can’t help but take the result seriously. Astronomers hate to say it—they’re as superstitious as anyone else, and they think they’ll jinx their chances—but there are Nobel Prizes at stake here.
Q: So this is real. Astronomers actually believe that 96 percent of the universe is "missing"?
Panek: Yes. They call it the ultimate Copernican revolution. Not only are we not at the center of the universe, we’re not even made of the same stuff as the vast majority of the universe.
Q: What now?
Panek: Nobody knows! And for astronomers, that’s the exciting part. Again and again, at conference after conference and in interview after interview, I’ve heard astronomers say that they can’t believe how fortunate they are to be scientists at this point in history. Four hundred years ago, Galileo turned a telescope to the night sky and discovered that there’s more out there than the five planets and couple of thousand stars that meet the eye. Now astronomers are saying that there’s more out there, period—whether it meets the eye or not. Lots more: the vast majority of the universe, in fact.
Q: If this revolution is such a big deal, why haven’t we heard about it?
Panek: Because it’s just beginning. Only in the past ten years have scientists reached a consensus that what we’ve always thought was the universe is really only four percent of it. Now they feel that figuring out the missing 96 percent is the most important problem in science.
Q: Will finding answers make our lives better? What’s the payoff?
Panek: On an immediate, day-to-day, price-of-milk level, nothing. But Galileo’s observations starting in 1609 completely changed the physics and philosophy of the next four hundred years in ways nobody could have anticipated. As I argue in The Four Percent Universe, this new revolution is going to have the same kind of effect on civilization. The fun is just beginning.
From Bookmarks Magazine
- Publisher : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; None edition (January 10, 2011)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 297 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0618982442
- ISBN-13 : 978-0618982448
- Item Weight : 1.09 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.25 x 1.25 x 9.25 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #859,298 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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The story of quasars, supernovae, standard candles, the inflationary universe, the accelerating universe, the many phenomena and theories that link astronomy to cosmology: these are all covered by Panek carefully with minimal technical contortions. The historical account is what makes this book, other books may be an easier read to clarify the technical aspects of dark matter and dark energy. It was published before the Nobel Prize was awarded to Schmidt and Perlmutter, but this takes little from the account. It would be a treat if Panek tackled these topics again in a decade or so, even as a revised edition.
I had no technical or formatting problems with this Kindle edition.
Top reviews from other countries
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. It is also a little out of date now, though discoveries have tended to be 'more of the same' since.
But this book is written in the style of a fiction novel, with a scene being set and a drama enacted. I guess the very first paragraph of the book shows what I mean:
"in the beginning - which is to say, 1965 - the universe was simple. It came into being one noontime early that year over the course of a telephone conversation. Jim Peebles was sitting in the office of his mentor and frequent collaborator, the Princeton physicist Robert Dicke, along with two other colleagues. The phone rang; Dicke took the call. Dicke helped run a research firm on the side, and he himself held dozens of patents. During these weekly lunches in his office, he sometime got phone calls that were full of esoteric and technical vocaulary that Peebles knew intimately - concepts the four physicists had been discussing that very afternoon. Cold load, for instance: a device that would help calibrate the horn antenna - another term Peebles overheard - that they would be using to try to detect a special signal from space. The three physicists grew quiet and looked at Dicke. Dicke thanked the caller and hung up, then turned to his colleages and said, "Well boys, we've been scooped."
Don't expect the style to settle down - it doesn't. It's something like a radio panel show game, with contestants given a task "Explain a scientific story in the style of an Inspector Rebus novel". It's just inappropriate, frustrating; and very soon the recession velocity of useful information exceeds the cosmic attention span, and one just gives up.
Not only that, but the book's title doesn't fit with the content: "The 4% Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality". Unless I've missed something really important, although the indirect evidence for dark matter and energy of empty space is pretty much unimpeachable, dark matter particles themselves have yet to be detected. So I hoped to read a book about the subject described in the title, and the scientific race/quest to complete the picture.
Nah, if you're interested in the cosmology, don't waste your time: this is a book about teams you're not interested in, full of names you don't care about, competing with each other to directly observe something which has yet to be observed. If this were an Inspector Rebus novel (or any other novel), we'd feel short-changed (to say the least) if the story had no conclusion. But if this is a race, it is a race that has not ended.
If you, like me, are interested in reading about the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy, what we know, what and why we conjecture, and how open questions are being addressed and proofs are being sought; I think you're likely to be as disappointed as me by this book.
If you're one of the guys in the story (probably the USA side of the story) and you want to read about yourself in a narrative, maybe you'll quite like it.
Okay, lastly in this review, since it's actually a book about a race between a few global teams to discover a dark matter particle, I'd like to wish good luck to Dr Sean Paling and his team at the Boulby Underground Science Facility, who are in the UK's part of this race. I think it's important to wish them well, since this book full of names doesn't even mention their existence, neither reference any of their experiments.
This book covers the science quite well, and in a fair bit of detail (though sometimes the descriptions seem a bit bland even if they are lengthy). But it is overwhelmingly about the history of the discoveries and the relationships between the different, sometimes competing, individual researchers, and teams. So the book could be said to be about 25-30% science, and the rest narrative. It is quite a long read too, so eventually I found myself sneaking a look at where the notes, references, index, etc started, to see how near the finishing line I was getting! That meant that my rating is down a bit, but I am sure others will enjoy it more, as it undoubtedly a good book.
An example is the historic phone call between two sets of researchers who were investigating background radiation from the sky that came to be known as the Cosmic Microwave Backgound. Not only is there the obligatory mention of the content of the call itself, but in later threads there are further references to it such as 'this was the same room that ...', and 'this was the day that...'. All this perhaps is a reflection of the description of his work as "writing on science and culture" in various publications and books, trying to set the whole research programme in context.
As with other books I have read, the narrative repeatedly reverts in time to trace through each thread of the investigations and discoveries from initial ideas to the latest situation. As a bit of an aside, I would be fascinated to see someone try and take a broader front through time, with the concurrent investigations described 'together' chapter by chapter, using a single pass from 'then' to 'now'. Don't know if it would work though!
I would recommend this particularly to prospective readers that have perhaps a preference for the historical part of the story.
Here is a rather unusual approach for a science book. It is a story that Richard Panek tells through the aspirations, actions and achievements of a host of individuals. There is a cast list of hundreds and while key characters are a constant presence, many others - as in any drama - are bit players.
Sometimes for one who wants to follow the scientific thread, it is disconcerting to have to remember who did which with whom to produce what. Nevertheless the book rattles along at brisk pace dwelling in some detail on one of the big set pieces: the rivalry between the High-z team at Berkeley and the SCP team at Harvard to determine whether the expansion of the universe was slowing or accelerating. So many names were mentioned that even on re-reading I am not entirely sure who headed these teams. The rivalry was about personal kudos but also concerned the practical matter of getting finance.
If you want to understand the insights that yield theories and then the tedious business of observation to demonstrate the validity of the idea, this book gives a good idea of what goes on. Richard Panek interviewed over ninety scientists in researching the book as well as publications: the bibliography runs to a 150 references. I'm sure it is an entirely accurate picture but for the general reader the personal details intrude and make everything rather more complex than it need be.
At times the pace of the science can be frustratingly slow and the biographical detail a little florid. Nevertheless, the author paints a compelling human picture of academic research: the rivalries and tensions, the personal sacrifices, the funding crises, the ground breaking insights, failures and even the tragedies.
The human narrative is based around two rival teams of researchers vying to be the first to discover and publish their findings with respect to dark matter and energy and thus the future of the universe. What makes this story fascinating and the rivalry so intense is the fact that the teams come from the very different disciplines of astronomy and particle physics - with different academic modus operandi and cultures.
Panek adroitly outlines the study of supernovae which led to the dramatic conclusion that the expansion of the universe is actually accelerating, rather than slowing as would be predicted by Newtonian theories of gravity. He describes how this in turn led to the revival of Einstein's cosmological constant, initially seen by physicists as a fudge and later discarded with Hubble's discovery of an expanding universe through inflation. Subsequent discussion leads inexorably into the hypothesis of dark matter - bizarre enough and then stranger still -dark energy as the catalyst of this acceleration.
Less important than whether dark matter consists of axions or neutralinos is the paradigmal shift that dark matter and energy research caused in moving cosmology from the realm of meta physics to particle physics. Crucially such research has also shifted the emphasis of astronomy from the study of the visible parts of the electromagnetic spectrum to the study of the dark invisible longer wavelengths.
The author ends by suggesting tantalizing quantum based multi universe explanations for dark energy effects and concludes that future developments in our understanding are dependent on the reconciliation of the physics of the very large with that of the very small i.e. the evolution of a quantum theory of gravity.