The Edge of Physics: A Journey to Earth's Extremes to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe

by Anil Ananthaswamy

The story of modern cosmology told through a tour of the most extraordinary detectors and telescopes in the world.

  • Format: Paperback
  • ISBN-13/ EAN: 9780547394527
  • ISBN-10: 0547394527
  • Pages: 336
  • Publication Date: 01/14/2011
  • Carton Quantity: 24

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About the Book
About the Author
  • About the Book
    In this deeply original book, science writer Anil Ananthaswamy sets out in search of the telescopes and detectors that promise to answer the biggest questions in modern cosmology. Why is the universe expanding at an ever faster rate? What is the nature of the "dark matter" that makes up almost a quarter of the universe? Why does the universe appear fine-tuned for life? Are there others besides our own?

    Ananthaswamy soon finds himself at the ends of the earth—in remote and sometimes dangerous places. Take the Atacama Desert in the Chilean Andes, one of the coldest, driest places on the planet, where not even a blade of grass can survive. Its spectacularly clear skies and dry atmosphere allow astronomers to gather brilliant images of galaxies billions of light-years away. Ananthaswamy takes us inside the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope on Mount Paranal, where four massive domes open to the sky each night "like dragons waking up."

    He also takes us deep inside an abandoned iron mine in Minnesota, where half-mile-thick rock shields physicists as they hunt for elusive dark matter particles. And to the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, where engineers are drilling 1.5 miles into the clearest ice on the planet. They’re building the world’s largest neutrino detector, which could finally help reconcile quantum physics with Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

    The stories of the people who work at these and other dramatic research sites—from Lake Baikal in Siberia to the Indian Astronomical Observatory in the Himalayas to the subterranean lair of the Large Hadron Collider—make for a compelling new portrait of the universe and our quest to understand it. An atmospheric, engaging, and illuminating read, The Edge of Physics depicts science as a human process, bringing cosmology back down to earth in the most vivid terms.

  • About the Author
  • Excerpts

    It was the day after Christmas in 2004, a bright winter's day in Berkeley, California. I was outside a café at the corner of Shattuck and Cedar, waiting for Saul Perlmutter, an astrophysicist at the University of California. The campus is nestled at the base of wooded hills that rise steeply from the city's edge. About 1,000 feet up in the hills is the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). In the 1990s, the UC campus and LBNL housed several members of two teams of astronomers that simultaneously but independently discovered something that caused ripples of astonishment, even alarm. Our universe, it seems, is being blown apart.
     Perlmutter was the leader of one of those teams. His enthusiastic, wide-eyed gaze, enhanced by enormous glasses, along with a forehead made larger by a receding hairline, reminded me of Woody Allen. But what he had found was no laughing matter. In fact, Perlmutter admitted that their discovery had thrown cosmology into crisis. The studies of distant supernovae by the two teams had shown that the expansion of the universe, first observed by Edwin Hubble in 1929, was accelerating - not, as many had predicted, slowing down. It was as if some mysterious energy were creating a repulsive force to counter gravity. Unsure as to its exact nature, cosmologists call it dark energy. More important, it seems to constitute nearly three-quarters of the total matter and energy in the universe.
     Dark energy is the latest and most daunting puzzle to confront cosmologists, adding to another mystery that has haunted them for decades: dark matter. Nearly 90 percent of the mass of galaxies seems to be made of matter that is unknown and unseen. We know it must be there, for without its gravitational pull the galaxies would have disintegrated. Perlmutter pointed out that cosmologists in particular, and physicists in general, are now faced with the stark reality that roughly 96 percent of the universe cannot be explained with the theories at hand. All our efforts to understand the material world have illuminated only a tiny fraction of the cosmos.
     And there are other mysteries. What is the origin of mass? What happened to the antimatter that should have been produced along with matter after the big bang? After almost a century of spectacular success at explaining our world using the twin pillars of modern physics - quantum mechanics and Einstein's general theory of relativity - physicists have reached a plateau of sorts. As Perlmutter put it, he and others are now looking to climb a steep stairway toward a new understanding of the universe, with only a foggy idea of what awaits them at the top.
     Part of this seemingly superhuman effort will involve reconciling quantum mechanics with general relativity into a theory of quantum gravity. In situations where the two domains collide - where overwhelming gravity meets microscopic volumes, such as in black holes or in a big bang - the theories don't work well together. In fact, they fail miserably. One of the most ambitious attempts to bring them together is string theory, an edifice of incredible mathematical complexity. Its most ardent proponents hope that it will lead us not just to quantum gravity but to a theory of everything, allowing us to describe every aspect of the universe with a few elegant equations. But the discovery of dark energy and recent developments in string theory itself have conspired to confound. On yet another winter's day in the Bay Area, more than two years after meeting Perlmutter, I got a taste of just how grave things had gotten in physics.
     It was a late February afternoon in 2007. A conference room on the ballroom level of the San Francisco Hilton was filled to capacity for this session at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Three physicists were arguing about dark energy and how it relates to some of the most serious questions one can ask: Why is our universe the way it is? Is it fine-tuned for the existence of life? Dark energy, it turns out, is not merely mysterious; it seems to be at about the right value for the formation of stars and galaxies. “The great mystery is not why there is dark energy. The great mystery is why there is so little of it,” Leonard Susskind, Felix Bloch Professor of Theoretical Physics at Stanford and co-inventor of string theory, told the audience at the Hilton. He continued in a poetic vein: “The fact that we are just on the knife edge of existence, [that] if dark energy were very much bigger we wouldn't be here, that's the mystery.”
     The hope until recently had been that string theory would explain this, that dark energy's value would fall out naturally as a solution to the theory's equations - as would the answers to other puzzling questions. Why does the proton weigh almost two thousand times more than the electron? Why is gravity so much weaker than the electromagnetic force? Essentially, why do the fundamental constants of nature have the values they do? The question of dark energy is emblematic of such concerns. Nothing in the laws of physics can explain why many aspects of our universe are what they are. They seem to be extraordinarily fine-tuned to produce a universe capable of supporting life - a fact that bothers physicists no end.
     But string theory's hoped-for denouement is nowhere in sight. Indeed, some physicists are slowly abandoning the notion that everything about the universe can be reduced to a handful of equations. In San Francisco, Susskind rose to address this issue. His talk was titled “Why the Rats Are Fleeing the Ship.” However, abandoning reductionism hasn't meant abandoning string theory. Quite the contrary. For Susskind and many others, it has meant embracing the theory in all its mathematical glory, despite its mind-boggling consequences. One of the most outlandish implications of string theory, as it stands today, is the existence of a multiverse. The idea is that our universe is just one of a possible 10 to the five hundredth power universes, if not more. And in this extraordinary scenario lies an answer to the conundrum of why dark energy and other fundamental constants have the values they do. In a multiverse, all values of dark energy and fundamental constants are possible; in fact, the laws of physics can differ from universe to universe. To explain our universe, physicists don't have to resort to tweaking and fine-tuning. If a multiverse exists, then there is a fi- nite probability, however small, that our universe randomly emerged with the properties it has. The laws governing it give rise to stars and galaxies - and, indeed, planets and intelligent life, including physicists asking the question: Why is the universe the way it is?
     This is the so-called anthropic principle, which, loosely stated, says that our universe is what it is because we are here to say so, and if it were any different we wouldn't exist to inquire. The idea is viewed by many as a cop-out, for then physicists don't have to work so hard to explain all things from first principles. Another speaker, cosmologist Andrei Linde, Susskind's colleague at Stanford, recalled his efforts to talk about the anthropic principle to physicists at Fermilab, outside Chicago, nearly twenty years ago. Linde had been warned that eggs were thrown at people who talked about such things, so he began by discussing something else entirely and switched topics midway, on the assumption that the Fermilabbers wouldn't “have enough time to go to Safeway and buy eggs.”
     Given string theory's support for a multiverse, the anthropic principle is gaining traction. But string theory itself is so far from being experimentally verified that many physicists find it difficult, if not impossible, to take its implications seriously. The third parti...

  • Reviews
    "Part history lesson, part travel log, part adventure story, The Edge of Physics is a wonder-steeped page-turner." — SEED Magazine, 3/2/10
    "These experiments and others are heroic in every sense, and Ananthaswamy captures their excitement--and the personalities of the scientists behind them--with enthusiasm and insight." Publishers Weekly, 1/4/10.
    "Sure to appeal to general readers interested in science books without the philosophy and mathematics found in drier, more academic physics titles."  — Library Journal.

    "Physicists are trying to understand the furthest reaches of space and the furthest extremes of matter and energy. To do it, they have to trek to some of the furthest places on Earth—from deep underground, to forbidding mountains, to the cold of Antarctica. Anil Ananthaswamy takes us on a thrilling ride around the globe and around the cosmos, to reveal the real work that goes into understanding our universe."—Sean Carroll, California Institute of Technology, and author of From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time

    "An excellent book. The author has a great knack for making difficult subjects comprehensible. I thoroughly enjoyed it."—Sir Patrick Moore, former president of the British Astronomical Society and presenter of the BBC’s The Sky at Night

    "Ananthaswamy’s juxtaposition of extreme travel and extreme science offers a genuinely novel route into the story of modern cosmology. His tale turns on the price of success: we already know so much about our universe that it becomes hugely difficult—even risky—to pry loose from nature that next burst of insight. The result is a well written and genuinely accessible account of what it takes to push past the edge of human knowledge."—Thomas Levenson, author of Newton and the Counterfeiter and Einstein in Berlin

    "Clean, elegant prose, humming with interest."—Robert MacFarlane, author of Mountains of the Mind and The Wild Places 

    "The Edge of, quite simply, the ultimate physics-adventure an adventure story and a fly-on-the-wall account of remote places that most of us will never visit, The Edge of Physics is brilliant." —PhysicsWorld

    "Ananthaswamy displays a writer's touch for the fascinating detail...whether he is in an abandonded iron mine in Minnesota's Mesabi Range or the frigid Siberian expanse of Lake Baikal, he finds intrepid physicists and explains to us why these weird places are the only locations on the planet where these experiments could be done." —Washington Post

     "A grand tour of modern day cosmology’s sacred places...evocative...engaging…refreshing...a taste of science in the heroic mode." —Sky At Night

     "Ananthaswamy, a science writer and editor, smoothly weaves together the stories of people who help push science forward, from principal investigators to research institute gardeners, with exquisitely clear explanations of the questions they hope to solve -- and why some research can be done only at the edge of the world." —ScienceNews

    "A remarkable narrative that combines fundamental physics with high adventure... Ananthaswamy is a worthy guide for both journeys." —New Scientist

    “The Edge of Physics is an accomplished and timely overview of modern cosmology and particle astrophysics. Ananthaswamy’s characterizations of the many physicists he meets are on the mark... Ananthaswamy conveys that cutting-edge science is a human endeavour.” —Nature

    "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." —Curled Up With A Good

    "While Ananthaswamy—a consulting editor at New Scientist inLondon—focuses heavily on the science, The Edge of Physics reads like a travel-adventure story or a work offiction." —Failure Magazine

    "From the top of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea to Switzerland’s Large Hadron Collider and more, Ananthaswamy paints a vivid picture of scientific investigations in harsh working conditions...even for readers who don’t know a neutrino from Adam, these interesting tales of human endeavor make The Edge of Physics a trip worth taking." The BookPage