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Keywords: Physics, cosmology, popular science
Title: The Edge of Physics
Author: Anil Ananthaswamy
Publisher: Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd
Level: Pop science
Verdict: A mix of travelogue and science writing, but easy on the technical detail.
These are interesting times for physics. With results from the Large Hadron Collider at CERN eagerly expected to confirm to deny the existence of the Higgs boson and with the vexed question of the nature of dark matter and dark energy making mainstream headlines, it seems that we are making huge steps forward in our understanding of the fundamental building blocks of the universe. So Anil Ananthaswamy's 'The Edge of Physics: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Cosmology', is well-timed to appeal to those whose interest is piqued by the headlines (such as the recent report of faster than light travel by muons).
As well as the Large Hadron Collider, the book focuses on many of the other large scale projects currently in progress in different parts of the world that are looking at the key fundamental questions about the structure of space-time, matter and the possible existence of multiple universes. And, in looking at these experiments, Ananthaswamy takes the opportunity to impart some historical context, illustrating how it is that we have arrived at our current level of understanding.
For many readers, a key factor in a pop physics book is the degree of technical detail. Is this a book that is demanding in terms of mathematical and theoretical content? Sadly the answer is a clear no. This is not a book that goes into any great depth into the theories it discusses. The technical level is low, which is fine for some readers, but may be largely disappointing to those readers who want more than just a light skim. It's certainly not on a level with something like Brian Greene's masterful 'The Elegant Universe'. This may be a bonus for some readers of course, for whom the human story is at least (or perhaps more) important than the theories.
A clear theme that runs through the book is the difference between the theorists and the experimenters. And, for a change, it is the experimenters who predominate in this book. What is also clear is that we are at an impasse right now, and that where we go next in cosmology is going to be driven by the results of these experiments. Theorists, it seems, may be going back to the drawing board as result after result pokes holes in many of the key theories currently in the ascendant. The tremendous ingenuity of these experiments, and the massive technical challenges that have to be overcome, are well-described and are testament to the hardy breed who are making this happen.
In fact, it's the human side of the story that is Ananthaswamy's major focus. The book works best if viewed as a physics-tinged travelogue. The major experiments described in the book take place in many different parts of the world, from deep under the Swiss Alps to Siberia, India, South Africa, Antarctica and more. The need to screen out noise of various types - from light pollution to radio noise to stray cosmic rays - means that many of these experiments take place in extreme environments. From miles below the surface in deep mines, to under the Antarctic ice cap to high in the mountains of Chile, Ananthaswamy describes both the environments and the people performing these experiments, as well as his own, often uncomfortable, experiences as a traveller. At times this focus on the Ananthaswamy's travelling was too obtrusive and detracted from the book.
Overall this is a book that is not without interest, but for this reader at least, more of an emphasis on the physics would have made it a more engaging read. While the subject matter really grabs the attention, there was simply too much focus on other areas. And, it has to be said, that the writing style left something to be desired. A key skill in popularising complex scientific ideas is in finding the right imagery and metaphors. When done well, these metaphors serve to illuminate the underlying idea, where they do not work they simply do not help the reader. The best science writers can do this, but Ananthaswamy, for whom this is the first pop science book, has some way to go to hone his skills.