14 June 2010

Book review: "The Edge of Physics", or the human drive to understand the unimaginable

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This post is the first of a series that will review new popular science books.

In his 2010 book The Edge of Physics, Anil Ananthaswamy, a consulting editor at New Scientist, wants to provide the general reader with an easily understood survey of current investigations in physics, specifically in cosmology. On first glance, one might conclude that Ananthaswamy is simply adding to the recently emerged genre of popular science combined with extreme travel writing. And, he is. But to think only that of this book would be to miss its real strength: True to his journalistic training, Ananthaswamy presents a compelling human interest story with some mind-blowing science attached.

The Edge of Physics is travel writing in two senses: firstly, Ananthaswamy presents a tour of the current state of cosmological inquiries ranging from dark matter and dark energy to multiverses and antimatter; secondly, Ananthaswamy journeys around the world to witness where experimenters test out the pencil-and-coffee abstractions of theorists. His travels take him to Antarctica to see IceCube, the world’s largest neutrino detector, having first visited the one buried 2,341 feet in the Earth at the Soudan mine in Minnesota; to Lake Baikal and Chile’s Atacama Desert.

In his search to find the limits of human understanding, Ananthaswamy experiences extreme cold, lack of oxygen and altitude sickness, the perseverance and tenacity of researchers and the roadhouse camaraderie of Antarctic drilling crews.

But it’s by offering reasons why his readers care about researchers and their investigations that Ananthaswamy solves a problem which all scientists and science writers face when communicating to the public: not everyone is interested enough in science to tune into Nova Science or read the Tuesday New York Times for the Science Times section. So finding where people’s non-science interests lie and combining them with science is a sound tactic.

All of the people Ananthaswamy meets have fascinating stories to tell about how they came to where they are now. Early on in the book Ananthaswamy interviews Richard Gaitskill, part of the team from Brown University working on the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search at the Soudan Mine. Ananthaswamy notes that Gaitskill, an Englishman, has “a decidedly odd taste in socks” and “an experimentalist’s chutzpah and a theorist’s love for ideas.”

Gaitskill’s first passion was numbers and, in particular, stock market indices; he began his career as an investment banker in the City of London. Gaitskill became dissatisfied with financial high-rolling and looked to return to the University of Oxford. He recalls telling the committee who granted him his fellowship that “greed became boring.” At Oxford it was OK for him “disappear into his lab” first thing in the morning, wolfing down coffee and a pastry en route, and not emerge until close0 to midnight. The university took care of his meals and lodging. Without any need to carry money with him and with his needs for food and shelter taken care of, he felt “a bit like the Queen.” And now, he’s almost three-quarters of a kilometer underground searching for particles that zap across the cosmos leaving scarcely a trace.

At the Paranal Observatory, home to four huge telescopes in Chile’s high altitude Atacama Desert, Ananthaswamy meets Carlos Arriagada, not a cosmologist, not an astronomer, but one who shares their passion. Carlos is the gardener at Paranal. Having gone through a rough patch in his life, Carlos’ tending of the garden gives him a lifeline, as Ananthaswamy describes it. Carlos told Ananthaswamy that his stewardship of the plants is “the culmination of my life. I am going to devote the rest of my life to this. I am in love with this garden, and in love with Paranal. The astronomers are looking for the unknown in the universe. I’m devoted to the things I know, and we are a very good complement.”

Herein lies the special strength of Ananthaswamy’s book: he lets everyone involved in the greatest human enterprise −discovering why we exist− express themselves. Ananthaswamy gives the reader reasons to care about scientists and their endeavors.

The Edge of Physics should not be couched as a popular-science/travel-writing crossover, as readers who are used to extreme travel writing won’t find enough hunger and hardship here; readers who prefer the relationships within the Quark family to their kith-and-kin will also feel disappointed. Other books aimed at a general audience offer more detailed and more wow! explanations of what happened before, during, and after the big bang; dark matter/dark energy; and multiverses (Michio Kaku’s exhilarating Parallel Worlds is my favorite).

Ananthaswamy’s book revels in our ability to pose immense questions and then using our equally immense resourcefulness and ingenuity devise ways of finding answers to those questions. As Francis Halzen of the IceCube neutrino telescope says, “I am not responsible for what is emitting neutrinos in the universe. We developed the technique, we built it, and we’ll see what comes.” Leaving aside the fact that as soon as Ananthaswamy finished his final version the edge of physics had moved on, he deftly articulates what motivates the researchers and their support teams and thereby communicates their passion, their wonder, and their part in the drama of scientific inquiry.

– Paul Cooper, AGU Education Coordinator