Back in the fall, I got an email from my UK publisher asking me if I’d be willing to read and possibly blurb a forthcoming book, The Four Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality by Richard Panek. The book isn’t exactly in my field, but there really wasn’t any way I’d turn down a request like that. Coincidentally, I received an ARC of the book a few days later from the US publisher. They weren’t asking for a blurb, but I’m always happy to get free books.
From the title, I expected this to be another book laying out the now-standard model (if not Standard Model) of cosmology, with ordinary matter accounting for about 4% of the energy content of the universe, with dark matter (of an undetermined nature) accounting for about a quarter, and the rest of it being dark energy (of an even more undetermined nature). To be honest, I was a little “meh” about the idea going into the book, as I’ve heard the basic outline of this a dozen times in colloquium talks and pop-science tv shows and the rest. I didn’t see how yet another book on the subject would add all that much.
I was very pleasantly surprised when I started reading the book, because that’s not what this is. Or, more precisely, that’s not all this is. It does contain an explanation of the science, but that’s not the main purpose of the book. It’s not a book about the known facts regarding the nature of the universe so much as a book about the process by which those facts were determined and became accepted.
That story, as it turns out, is absolutely fascinating. Messy, but fascinating.
The first part of the book covers the initial discovery of dark matter via the rotation curves of galaxies– a very interesting story in its own right, particularly the bits about Vera Rubin, who has led a fascinating life. The real meat of the story, though, starts somewhat later, with the last three sections devoted to a detailed chronicle of the development of and rivalry between the two major collaborations– the Supernova Cosmology Project at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, headed by Saul Perlmutter, and the High-Z Supernova Search headed by Brian Schmidt. Both teams hit on the same idea– using supernovae in distant galaxies as “standard candles” to determine the distance to those galaxies accurately, and then combining that information with the red shifts of those galaxies to determine the expansion history of the universe– but they came at it from very different directions. They ended up in a race to see which group would be first to get the data nailing down the nature of the universe, and nearly simultaneously arrived at the same conclusion: that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, contrary to what everybody expected before these observations were made.
The science is exciting and unexpected, but the story of the rivalry is even more compelling. There are numerous aspects to it: a disciplinary rivalry (Perlmutter’s team came from the world of physics, while Schmidt’s team is a more traditional team of astronomers), generational conflicts (as the principals alternately try to find favor with and distance themselves from older, more established scientists), high-stakes scientific politics (as they compete for scarce telescope time), and the difficulty of nailing down an extraordinary claim with extraordinary evidence. All of this is related in a highly detailed and very balanced fashion– Panek has clearly gotten extensive cooperation from both teams, and doesn’t play favorites.
The basic scientific picture has been laid out in a dispassionate fashion in numerous places, but here it’s presented with all the internal details that people in the business are familiar with, but that rarely make it into the media. There’s squabbling over priority, a large collection of outraged phone calls, and a number of uncomfortable compromises. The scene where a NASA official calls in the High-Z team and asks their opinion of the SCP request for Hubble Telescope time, and it takes them a while to realize that he’s offering them time if they ask for it is particularly vivid, and rings completely true.
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.
So, as you can guess, if you check out the page for the UK edition, you’ll find a blurb from yours truly, reading:
A compelling story of research at the cutting edge of science, with all the personalities and politics that the textbooks leave out.
(And now you’ve also gotten an inside look at how book blurbs get generated…)