three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
51-Mar-Apr-2011
user_rating: 
0

Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality

A-The 4 Percent UniverseIn addition to articles in Discover, Natural History, the New York Times, and Smithsonian, science journalist Richard Panek is the author of Seeing Is Believing (1998), an account of the first telescope and the monumental shift it brought about in our understanding of our place in the universe, and The Invisible Century (2004).

The Topic: In 1969, astronomer Jeremiah Ostriker discovered that the Milky Way spins too fast--so fast, in fact, that it should have ripped itself apart long ago. Baffled, he theorized that some massive amount of as-yet undetectable matter, "dark matter," generates enough of a gravitational field to hold the galaxy together. Twenty-nine years later, two teams of scientists measuring the brightness of distant supernovae simultaneously determined that the universe is expanding at an increasing, rather than a decreasing, rate of speed and named the mysterious force behind this incredible phenomenon "dark energy." As he probes the breakthroughs, the frustrations, and the enduring enigmas that define our understanding of the space around us, Panek reveals that much of our universe--96 percent--is presently unknown and quite possibly unknowable.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 320 pages. $26. ISBN: 9780618982448

Salon.com 4 of 5 Stars
"The book is as much about how the science got done as about the science itself, and sometimes the false leads and wild goose chases can be confusing to the astronomical novice. Nevertheless, Panek, who has written early accounts of these matters for the New York Times, is a wondrously clear explicator of some thorny concepts, and by the end even cosmological dilettantes will chuckle knowingly upon learning of an e-mail Schmidt sent to one of his team in 1998, that read, ‘Well Hello Lambda!'" Laura Miller

Dallas Morning News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Jealousy and arguments over scientific precedence are indeed part of almost every great scientific discovery, but Panek is occasionally guilty of focusing too much on the squabbling and not enough on the scientific breakthroughs. … [But setting the book aside] would be a mistake. The 4 Percent Universe offers at least 80 percent scientific adventure and intellectual stimulation.” Fred Bortz

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
“Some chapters have only tenuous links to the rest of the book, reading more like magazine articles than vital episodes in a greater story. But Panek's passion for the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy wins the day.” Carl Zimmer

Onion AV Club 2.5 of 5 Stars
“[Panek] has some fascinating subject matter to work with, especially in the later chapters, as scientists struggle with the realization that the type of matter that makes up everything humans can perceive is only a tiny percent of what's out there. Unfortunately, all that great discussion fodder is bogged down by Panek's focus on the teams researching cosmology.” Samantha Nelson

Critical Summary

Exploring “one of the most important stories in the history of science” (Washington Post), Panek nimbly outlines recent findings in physics, astronomy, and cosmology and evaluates rival theories in clear, comprehensible language. He also dives into the bureaucratic morass and professional enmities of contemporary research, examining how these discoveries were made as well as who made them. While some critics appreciated this behind-the-scenes human drama as a tool for understanding the full story, others believed that Panek's alternating focus on the scientists themselves detracted from the actual science. However, even readers who prefer their science straight up will find much to admire in this accessible and fascinating survey of one of the most exciting—and maddening—fields of study.

Also by the Author

The Invisible Century Einstein, Freud, and the Search for Hidden Universes (2004): A dual biography of Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud, The Invisible Century adeptly weaves together two of the 20th century's most revolutionary ideas—the theory of relativity and the unconscious mind, both of which seek to map the unseen—and their historic impact on the methods of science. n