The reality of physics today is far stranger than anything Hollywood writers could create, yet the mind-blowing discoveries are taken for granted by the general public. Dark matter and dark energy make up more than 95% of our universe, yet no one knows what that is. Alternate realities are thoughtfully considered by respectable minds, and ‘scientists attempt to recreate the Big Bang’ is a news story that ranks a few notches below the latest celebrity divorce.
While the advances in this field still amaze a few of us, pragmatists find that there’s a much more baffling question: how did scientists figure it out? We’ve come a long way in the past century or so, but we still can’t cruise our starships over to the next galaxy to check out a spatial anomaly. Instead, those rational left-brainers have to haul out their creativity and find answers to astronomical questions in some of the most isolated and improbable places right here on Earth. Lucky for us, Anil Ananthaswamy, a consulting editor for New Scientist magazine, took up the challenge and went traveling to find out just how it’s done. He shares his eye-opening journey with us in his new book, The Edge of Physics, which takes readers around the known world in order to examine ten very different locations where complex experiments are conducted.
Ananthaswamy’s investigation of current experiments in physics bypasses the mathematics of the field, making it easier for the average reader to dig in and enjoy the amazing discoveries and research methods that he encounters. The author has a knack for intertwining an overview of the purpose of these experiments with a finely balanced dose of related history and trivia. He also exhibits poetic touches here and there as he shares colorful vignettes from each of his destinations: a ritual feast on Lake Baikal where physicists attempt to capture muons; a foray through the history and promise of the Karoo, where the largest radio telescope ever conceived may be built (unless the Australians beat them out); and of course, the Large Hadron Collider, where the birth of our universe is expected to be duplicated.
In the course of these travels, Ananthaswamy takes us on small side trips into the history and personalities of physics, including some whose contributions are often overlooked, such as Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who found a way to gauge the intensity of stars, and Vera Rubin, who “nailed the idea that galaxies have much more mass than can be accounted for by luminous matter alone.”
Ananthaswamy reports on his adventures with a clear explanation of each experiment and with a keen eye for detail. An easy read even for those of us who lean heavily toward the liberal arts, The Edge of Physics explores the minds and motivations of those who dig for truth not just in the lab but in the real and often harsh environments required for conducting experiments and observations. Definitely not a textbook, The Edge of Physics is loaded with colorful anecdotes that reveal surprising new views of what many of us assume to be dull, plodding work. Not quite a romp, this book is, nevertheless, an entertaining and unusual work that will appeal to the average reader.