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The 4 Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark…

The 4 Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover… (2011)

by Richard Panek

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This a highly readable history of the transformation of cosmology from metaphysics to physics, from philosophy and speculation to hard science, and in the process, the discovery of most of the universe.

Historically, astronomy and physics didn't have a great deal to do with each other. Astronomers studied the stars by observation, very patient and detailed observation and record-keeping. Theoretical physicists theorized and calculated, and experimental physicists experimented, and they fed each other's work, very occasionally coming up with something, most notably gravity, that made a real difference to astronomy. Then Einstein gave us general relativity, and began a century of ever-deeper entanglement of physics and astronomy, and the transformation of cosmology--the study of the nature and origins of the entire universe--from something utterly beyond the scope of physics into its core. The questions of how big the universe is, whether it is eternal in space and time or had a beginning and might have an end, became real questions.

Edwin Hubble, early in the century, discovered that the universe is expanding, but also that there are other galaxies beyond our own, and that they're all moving away from us. This was a major, exciting, and initially controversial change in our conception of the universe. In the 1960s, Vera Rubin, looking for a research project she could do within the constraints of raising two young children, studied other astronomers' observations and discovered that the galaxies were rotating as well as moving away from us. Also in the mid-1960s, Robert Dicke, Jim Peebles, and a small group of theoretical physicists had a prediction for which they had no supporting data: If the Big Bang theory of the history of the universe were correct, there should be low-level cosmic microwave radiation, at a temperature of about 3 degrees Kelvin. Then two astronomers at Bell Labs, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, had data for which they had no explanation: While trying to calibrate the Bell Labs' Crawford Hill antenna to study radio waves from the fringes of the Milky Way, they found they had a tiny background hiss which no amount of calibration would eliminate. They'd found the background cosmic radiation, echo of the Big Bang.

That's one small step along the way, from Einstein to the discovery that most of our universe is invisible. As the back and forth played out between the theoretical physicists and the experimental and observational scientists, increasingly astronomers, each theoretical question drew forth an observation, a find, a discovery that answered that question, and raised another. The most startling of these was the discovery that visible, directly detectable matter is just over 4% of the total make-up of a universe far larger and more complex than ever suspected at the start of the 20th century. If what we see were all there were, the galaxies would not be, could not be, relatively compact, stable spirals (or their other shapes), but should be torn apart by the speed of their rotation. Outside, among, around, the visible matter of the galaxies was dark matter.

Dark matter was soon joined by the even more mysterious dark energy.

The largest part of Panek's book is devoted to the research to detect and identify dark matter and dark energy, He takes us through not only the science, fascinating enough in itself, but also the human drama as two teams, one primarily physicists and the other primarily astronomers, raced against each other to gather enough observations of sufficiently distant (and therefore ancient) supernovae to answer essential questions about the conditions of the early universe. In the answers to those questions, and questions about changes since that early time, would lie the answers to the reality of dark energy, dark matter, and maybe the ultimate fate of the universe.

Highly recommended.

This book is not yet published but can be pre-ordered from Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. ( )
  LisCarey | Sep 19, 2018 |
Very readable account of the latest theories of cosmology. Both the concepts themselves and the personalities and politics involved in the discoveries and theories are well presented. ( )
  bness2 | May 23, 2017 |
Not helpful really. It's just the history of what lead up to the discoveries. You could read Ch. 1 and skip to Ch. 7. ( )
  Baku-X | Jan 10, 2017 |
Much more the story of the search for the facts than the facts themselves. Way too many people to keep track of, following the cast of characters was harder than the science. Still pretty good. ( )
  bongo_x | Mar 8, 2016 |
Science enthusiasts, especially physicists, astronomers, and cosmologists, will love The 4% Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality. Richard Panek gives a detailed and thorough account of the history of cosmology (the study of the universe including its birth, composition, and laws). All of the heavy hitters are mentioned along with some I had never heard of (Adam Riess, anyone? Saul Perlmutter?). Mathematics abounds but if you're looking for diagrams or charts you've come to the wrong place which I personally found disappointing. The writing style is not written with the layman in mind. If you're unfamiliar with the standard terminology and not completely cognizant of some of the finer points regarding these specialized science disciplines you might find yourself a bit lost. However, if you are fascinated by what lays beyond our galaxy and how we fit into the grand scheme of things then you should definitely read this book (but be prepared to come away without all of the answers that you seek). ( )
  AliceaP | Jan 20, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 23 (next | show all)
The success of "The 4 Percent Universe" also stems from Panek's wisdom about how science works. It's easy to think that the discovery of dark matter and dark energy - the realization that we have no idea what most of the universe is made of - is a story of failure. Actually, scientists are delighted to have learned that they have blasted beyond any ready explanation that physics can offer for how the universe works. Now they have the opportunity to build a new physics that can make sense of how the universe, both light and dark, really works. "What greater legacy could a scientist leave a universe?" Panek asks.
All in all, this is a terrific book, and I'm happy to recommend it to anybody who is interested in either modern cosmology or the nitty-gritty details of Big Science. It's a really good read, and the sort of inside look at how science gets done that you don't often get to see.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0618982442, Hardcover)

The story behind the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics

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.

A Q&A with Richard Panek, Author of The Four Percent Universe

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:01:02 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

In exhilarating and behind-the-scenes detail, Panek takes his readers on a tour of the bitter rivalries and fruitful collaborations, the eureka moments and blind alleys, that have fuelled the search, redefined science, and reinvented the universe.Science journalist Panek (The Invisible Century) offers an insider's view of the quest for what could be the ultimate revelation: the true substance of the unseen dark matter and energy that makes up some 96% of our universe.… (more)

» see all 8 descriptions

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