March 2010

The frontiers of our brave new world

By Anil Ananthaswamy
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Remember the textbook diagram of the atom? That’s so last century. Today there is no way to depict the latest discoveries in astrophysics—like dark matter, for example, which makes its presence known only by the effect it exerts upon the visible elements in the cosmos. Although there is no visual evidence of this mysterious force, scientists now believe that nearly 90 percent of the universe is comprised of the stuff.

Thankfully, Anil Ananthaswamy, consulting editor for New Scientist, has a way of making you “see” even the invisible, taking readers to the distant edges of the cosmos while keeping them grounded with clear scientific explanations. For his new book, The Edge of Physics, Ananthaswamy traveled to 10 disparate locations across the globe to watch scientists perform cutting-edge experiments, determined to discover another piece of the puzzle of the universe. In a comfortable narrative style, he describes the places he visits and the scientists who remain single-mindedly focused on their tasks.

Scientists in the South Pole drill two kilometers into the Antarctic ice to lower optical devices deep into the hole, hoping to catch signs of neutrinos as they pass through the earth on their journey through space; a similar experiment goes on in Siberia’s Lake Baikal. South Africa challenges Australia for the privilege of building the world’s largest radio telescope in the extensive Karoo. 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.

The physics is there too, of course, interspersed throughout the narrative: neutrinos, bosons, fermions, string theory, space-time and more. Even with textbook definitions firmly in mind—the book includes a helpful glossary—the lay imagination struggles to grasp such foreign concepts. Having some prior knowledge of physics would be useful, but 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. 

Ruth Douillette is an essayist and photographer.

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The Edge of Physics

The Edge of Physics

By Anil Ananthaswamy
ISBN 9780618884681

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