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Alpha and Omega: The Search for the Beginning and End of the Universe

Alpha and Omega: The Search for the Beginning and End of the Universe

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by Charles Seife

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Humankind has grappled for millennia with the fundamental questions of the origin and end of the universe--it was a focus of ancient religions and myths and of the inquiries of Aristotle, Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton. Today we are at the brink of discoveries that should soon reveal the deepest secrets of the universe.

Alpha and Omega is a dispatch from


Humankind has grappled for millennia with the fundamental questions of the origin and end of the universe--it was a focus of ancient religions and myths and of the inquiries of Aristotle, Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton. Today we are at the brink of discoveries that should soon reveal the deepest secrets of the universe.

Alpha and Omega is a dispatch from the front lines of the cosmological revolution that is being waged at observatories and laboratories around the world-in Europe, in America, and even in Antarctica--where scientists are actually peering into both the cradle of the universe and its grave. Scientists--including galaxy hunters and microwave eavesdroppers, gravity theorists and atom smashers, all of whom are on the trail of dark matter, dark energy, and the growing inhabitants of the particle zoo-now know how the universe will end and are on the brink of understanding its beginning. Their findings will be among the greatest triumphs of science, even towering above the deciphering of the human genome.

This is the book you need to help understand the frequent front-page headlines heralding dramatic cosmological discoveries. It makes cutting-edge science both crystal clear and wonderfully exciting.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Seife's book shines in four major areas. First, in his history of cosmology, he presents an incisive perspective on the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and science's evolving picture of the cosmos. Next, the most important new tool aiding our cosmological understanding of the universe involves careful measurements of the cosmic background radiation, first discovered in 1965, that represents the afterglow of the Big Bang. Seife's discussion of the physics of this background radiation is as clear and up-to-date as any found in popular literature. He also very nicely brings in the inner space-outer space connection by describing accurately how investigations at large particle accelerators may directly affect our understanding of cosmology. Finally, he touches on the area the Time writers were so confused about: the future. The recent discovery about the acceleration of the universe has completely changed our picture of what its ultimate fate might be, even if we don't know what the answer is. — Lawrence M. Krauss
Publishers Weekly
Did the universe really begin with a bang, and will it end with a whimper? Well-known science journalist Seife gives a comprehensive survey of "theories of everything" from the ancients to the latest discoveries. He explains why some scientists now theorize that the universe may have begun-and may end-with a "big splat," and explains the "ekpyrotic scenario," which says a parallel universe, like a giant membrane, may be floating toward our universe. The recent, highly publicized discovery that the universe is expanding at an ever faster rate seems to support this idea. Another theory of everything that is sure to be encountered more and more frequently in magazines and newspapers is "M-theory," which combines the weird worlds of supersymmetry and string theory. According to supersymmetry, every particle has a twin superpartner endowed with very different properties than familiar subatomic particles. This helps solve the question of where the missing matter in the universe is, since the baryonic particles that we are able to detect make up only 5% of the total. String theory postulates the existence of membranes unimaginably minuscule and curled up in multiple dimensions. Seife also explains how large-scale projects in Louisiana and other sites are aimed at detecting gravity waves, one of the holy grails in science. In an appendix, he lays odds on which scientists look destined to win a Nobel Prize for their discoveries and the areas of research that we will probably see in tomorrow's headlines. In short, Seife provides lucid explanations of very complicated topics for the science buff or well-rounded general reader. (On sale July 14) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Science journalist Seife (Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea) describes the history of cosmology in terms of three "revolutions." The first, he says, was the development and gradual acceptance of the Copernican theory of the solar system. The second was the discovery and exposition throughout much of the 20th century of the Big Bang cosmology and the galactic red shifts that demonstrated the continuing expansion of the universe. Seife's "third revolution" began in 1997 and is still very much a work in progress. It includes research into the composition of so-called dark matter and dark energy, which constitute most of the stuff in the universe; ordinary matter makes up a mere five percent of our whole cosmos. The author also describes the recent startling discovery that the expansion of the universe and dispersion of the galaxies are actually accelerating and refers to recent theoretical speculation that there may be an infinity of alternative universes out there. Seife's well-written book, which uses only a negligible amount of mathematics, should interest readers who have the flexibility to absorb some mind-stretching new scientific findings. Recommended for most public and academic libraries.-Jack W. Weigel, Ann Arbor, MI Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Up-to-date and enthusiastic tour of the new cosmology. After brief glimpses at the Ptolemaic and Copernican universes, science journalist Seife (Zero, 2000) turns to Edwin Hubble's expanding universe, created in the Big Bang roughly 12 billion years ago. When the 1965 discovery of the cosmic microwave background confirmed the Big Bang theory, many astronomers and physicists were convinced that only a few issues remained unsolved before they could close the book on cosmological questions. But in the '90s, observational results from such improved instruments as the Hubble Space Telescope overturned the theoretical apple cart. In 1997, a study of distant supernovas indicated that the universe's expansion was speeding up. What causes the acceleration remains a mystery, currently explained in terms of "dark energy"-dark because it is so far undetectable except in its effect on cosmic expansion. One possible explanation lies in the energy of the quantum vacuum, which instead of being empty is actually a seething mass of virtual particles and forces. On another front, gravitational measurements indicate that much of the matter in the universe remains undetected and that the vast majority of it is made up of completely unknown components. The supersymmetry theory of physics explains this by proposing that each of the standard particles (electron, quark, etc.) is matched by a much heavier partner; but until someone actually detects these particles, the question remains unanswered. Seife presents simple, non-mathematical summaries of critical experiments and observations, including attempts to detect gravity waves and the polarization of cosmic background radiation, and the sometimes wild-seemingtheories that arise from them. Which new version of the universe turns out to be "real" remains to be seen. A good summary for the lay reader.

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Read an Excerpt


I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.
-Revelation 22:13

Ten billion light-years away, Nature screams. In a fraction of a second, a star explodes with more energy than ten billion billion billion hydrogen bombs. For a few weeks, the funeral pyre of the dying sun blazes and outshines the countless stars of its galaxy. When a star dies as a supernova, it is visible halfway across the universe.

The light from that supernova travels for ten billion years, attenuated and stretched along the way. By the time the light reaches Earth, it is far too dim to be spotted by the naked eye, but telescopes can see the supernova as a dim blotch in the sky. It is a message from the ends of the cosmos-a message whose receipt on Earth heralds the beginning of a revolution.

This revolution began in the late 1990s, when two teams of scientists began to decode the death throes of dying stars. Their observations showed that the universe was suffused with a mysterious "dark energy," an invisible substance that stretches the very fabric of space and time. The discovery of dark energy baffled and delighted astronomers, who scrambled to confirm the observations and understand the enigma. What's more, the stellar death rattles held the secret to the universe's death-scientists merely had to decrypt the message from the dying stars and they would understand how the cosmos would end.

That message has now been deciphered. On June 25, 2001, Time magazine devoted its cover to the end of the universe. "Peering deep into space and time, scientists have just solved the biggest mystery in the cosmos," it exclaimed. This is no overstatement. Cosmologists now know how the universe will end, and a new set of experiments, whose results have begun to trickle out, is removing the veil over the big bang, showing us how it began.

The revolution is being fought on many fronts, by astronomers, cosmologists, and physicists, high atop the Chilean mountains, deep underneath the Canadian soil, stranded in the middle of the Antarctic wasteland, and all across the globe. Alpha and Omega is the story of galaxy hunters and the microwave eavesdroppers, gravity theorists and particle physicists, quantum theorists and atom smashers, all of whom are on the brink of major discoveries. Each of their stories, taken alone, would be noteworthy. Together, they add up to a renaissance-a major shift in our understanding of the universe. This shift is happening right now, and it is far from finished.

Alpha and Omega is the story of the most exciting scientific discoveries in decades and the people behind them. It is also a guide to understanding the headlines that are erupting in Time, in the New York Times, in Science, and in newspapers and magazines all across the planet. This revolution in cosmology will be front-page news again and again over the next few years. Indeed, it will be one of the most important scientific stories of the twenty-first century. When it is over, we will have seen the moment of creation, and we will see the face of our own destruction.

Chapter 1
The First Cosmology
[The Golden Age of the Gods]

Then All-father took Night and her son, Day, and gave them two horses and two chariots and put them up in the sky, so that they should ride round the world every twenty-four hours. Night rides first on a horse called Hrimfaxi, and every morning he bedews the earth with the foam from his bit. Day's horse is called Skinfaxi, and the whole earth and sky are illumined by his mane.
-Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda

Perhaps it happened on a midwinter's night thirty thousand years ago. A tribe of cavemen huddled close to the embers of a dying flame. A single hairy face gazed upward, bewildered. Against the innumerable, immutable pinpricks of light in the heavens, a star had moved. A human looked into the cosmos and saw the trail of a wandering god.

Even before the dawn of civilization, people gazed skyward and wondered. Who created the stars in the sky? How was the universe born? Will it end? If so, how? These are the most ancient questions of humanity. Yet, for millennia upon millennia, the only way to answer these mysteries was through mythology. Even today, the remnants of that mythology can be seen in the heavens. The tiny lights that meander slowly through the sky, better known as planets, bear the names of gods. Red Mars is gorged with the blood of conquest; bright Venus glitters in the morning with the allure of the goddess of love. Each civilization invoked its own gods to explain the creation of the universe, the existence of stars in the night sky, and occasionally the ultimate destruction of the cosmos.

Three revolutions separate modern cosmologists from the shamans and storytellers of the age of mythology. The first, which took place in the 1500s, was the most dangerous. Its enemies tried to stifle it with all the weapons in their arsenal: accusations of heresy and witchcraft. The second revolution, which began in the 1920s, was the most unsettling; the comforting concept of a clockwork universe was shattered, and humanity was suddenly alone in a vast, empty cosmos. For the first time, scientists saw evidence of the act of creation. These two revolutions take us to the present day, where we are in the midst of a third revolution, a revolution that is finally answering the eternal questions, revealing our origins and our ultimate fate.

If you look upward on a sunny day and squint your eyes just right, you can imagine the vault of the heavens as an immaculate blue dome, arching high above the wispy clouds that float slowly across the sky. To ancient peoples, the dome of the sky was a real object; the Earth was enclosed by a beautiful sphere that shone blue in the daytime as the sun slowly traveled from east to west. In the evening, tiny, flickering points of light mocked the humans far below, and a faint shimmering ribbon stretched across the giant ball surrounding the Earth.

Who fashioned that sphere? Each culture had a different answer; every people had a story of creation, which told of how the gods came to be and how they created the universe. The Norse people, not surprisingly, thought that the universe was born from ice. As the frost encountered an enormous fire, it thawed and formed a giant named Ymir. Odin, chief of the gods, and his brothers slew Ymir and used his skull as the dome of heaven. They then fashioned the Earth from Ymir's flesh, the oceans from his blood, and the clouds from his brains. They set the planets in the sky and made the glowing chariots of the sun and moon chase each other in the vault of the heavens-each eternally pursued by a wolf.1 The Pawnee Indians of central North America saw corn as the mother of all things; Mother Corn gave life to humanity, which emerged from the ground like the crops that the Pawnee depended on. Some cultures thought the universe began as a vast ocean; others, as a shapeless chaos. There are dozens and dozens of vastly different tales of the creation of the universe, but most of them focus on the same events: the birth of the gods; the creation of the heavens, Earth, and stars; and the fashioning of man and woman. These elements are the foundation of any religion, as they answer the fundamental questions that humans have been asking since the dawn of time. Before the scientific revolution gave humanity another tool with which to examine the universe, people could only explore its history and nature by listening to the stories of shamans and the musings of philosophers. Religion and philosophy formed the cosmologies of the ancients.

Two of these numerous cosmologies dominated the Western world, from before the ascent of Rome until the time of William Shakespeare. Even though these two traditions are mutually contradictory, they fused, and fashioned a story of the universe that was almost unassailable until the advent of the scientific method. The combination of an Eastern, Semitic cosmology, encoded by the Bible, and a Western, Greco-Roman one, became a solid structure that stood for more than a millennium. It took a cosmological revolution to tear the edifice down.

The word cosmos is the Greek word for "order," and the cosmos-the universe as a whole-was the only order to be found in the chaos of Greek mythology. The sun traveled across the sky each day, guided by Helios, the solar charioteer.2 The moon waxed and waned each month, growing pregnant and barren in turn. And in the night sky, the stars remained fixed, except for five wanderers-the planets-that moved across the unchanging backdrop of the heavens.3 Even today, we know the planets by their Olympian names: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn are the Roman names of the Greek gods Hermes, Aphrodite, Ares, Zeus, and Cronus. The Greeks saw order in the clockwork motions of the heavenly bodies, and from early on in their civilization they began to work out the details of that clockwork. In 585 BC, the Greek mathematician Thales was the first to predict the coming of a solar eclipse. According to Herodotus, two warring peoples, the Medes and the Lydians, were astonished to see the day turn into night and decided that it would be a good time to put down their weapons.

By trying to understand how the heavens worked, Thales became the first starry-eyed cosmologist-to the amusement of his neighbors. "While he was studying the stars and looking upward, he fell into a pit, and a neat, witty Thracian servant girl jeered at him," Socrates reportedly said, several centuries later. But Thales put all his concentration and observation to good use. He created an entire cosmos from the sheer power of his mind.

Perhaps because the Greek stories of creation were fragmentary and contradictory, Thales ignored them when building his cosmology. Though he believed that gods were everywhere in the universe, Thales took the act of creation out of the gods' hands. In Thales' universe, water was the source of all things; earth floated upon the water like a cork. Not everyone agreed with Thales that water was the primordial material from which the universe was made. Others, like Anaxagoras and Diogenes, argued that air came before water. (After all, water destroys fire, so water could hardly have given birth to fire.) Yet others argued that fire was prime. Empedocles, who lived at around 450 BC, refused to pick a single primal essence and instead argued that earth, air, fire, and water were the four elements. In different combinations, he declared, these four essences made up everything in the universe.

The philosophers also argued about the nature of the heavenly clockwork. They looked to the heavens and tried to figure out the order of the cosmos, and Earth's place within that order. They began by describing the Earth itself. Pythagoras, an eccentric philosopher who is best known for his theorem about right triangles, argued that the planets, including Earth, revolved around a central fire. Others argued that the Earth was flat, and still others that it was spherical, but at the center of the universe. By the fourth century BC, Aristotle became the philosopher who mattered. Born in Macedonia, and tutored by Socrates' student Plato, Aristotle, in turn, became the teacher of Alexander of Macedon-better known as Alexander the Great. And just as surely as Alexander conquered the West, so too did Aristotle's philosophy.

Aristotle's cosmos was exquisitely orderly. Everything had its place in the universe. Empedocles' four elements had their natural positions; earth, the heaviest element, sank to the center of the universe, so the Earth, quite naturally, must be at the very center of the cosmos. Water was slightly lighter, so it floated above earth, but below air and fire, which were lighter still. Aristotle added a fifth element-literally, the quintessence-that was purest of all. Earthly things were made of earth, air, fire, and water; the quintessence was only found in the heavens. To Aristotle, the pure, unchanging heavens were made of stuff entirely different from the ever mutable, but motionless, Earth at the center of the universe. The moon, sun, and planets each revolved around the Earth in perfect, crystalline spheres, never ceasing in their motion, and filling the heavens with celestial harmony: the music of the spheres.

This cosmology was based upon pure logic. Aristotle made certain basic assumptions-that the universe had to be finite, that everything had a natural place, that circles and spheres were the most perfect geometric shapes-and deduced what he thought was the natural order of the cosmos. Aristotle's mentor, Plato, mocked the "light-minded men" who, "being students of the worlds above, suppose in their simplicity that the most solid proofs about such matters are obtained by the sense of sight," and Aristotle agreed. Observation was for fools.

Aristotle's cosmos was light on theology. It only required the existence of a "prime mover" to set the celestial spheres in motion-it did not specify the nature of that divine power. This, in part, is what gave Aristotle's cosmos such longevity even after an entirely different culture became the foundation for Western religion.

"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." The beginning of Genesis is the basis for Jewish-and, later, Christian-cosmology. Its roots lie in the hazy past of the first civilization, in the Fertile Crescent. Thousands of years later after the Hebrew Bible was set down in writing, Christ took this ancient tradition and bent it into a new form.

Unlike the Greek cosmology, which could easily accomodate a pantheon of petty, squabbling gods, the Jewish cosmology tells of an omnipotent, omniscient God who creates the heaven and Earth out of nothing. He alone fashions the vault of heavens and the Earth below; he alone set the sun, moon, and stars in their places in the sky. His act of creation took six days, but the universe, complete with the heavenly bodies, was finished by the fourth. God created man on the sixth day-the culmination of his efforts.4 The hierarchy is clear. Genesis sets it out quite neatly. God is above all, and then comes man, which God created in his image. Then comes woman. Then the beasts of the field, the fowl of the air, the fish of the sea, herbs and plants, and then the Earth itself. Man has dominion over all; everything else in the universe is meant to serve him. The sun and moon were meant to divide the night from the day for man's benefit; along with the innumerable stars, they were fashioned to provide him with light. Man is the center of the universe, both literally and figuratively.

When Rome conquered Greece, it absorbed Greek philosophy and culture-and its cosmology-and as the Roman Republic and Empire spread across the known world, so too did Aristotle's picture of the universe. But Rome, in turn, would be conquered by Christianity, a religion that branched off of Judaism. At the end of the first century AD, Christianity was a small sect. Less than three centuries later, the emperor Constantine, ruler of the most powerful nation on earth, converted to Christianity. The Greco-Roman and Christian cultures began to merge. Aristotle's ambiguous theology made it easy for the early Christians to absorb Aristotle, just as Rome had. (The New Testament was written in Greek, after all, so the early church had already absorbed a heavy dose of Greek culture.) Christianity, with Greek philosophical undertones, became the dominant cosmology in the Western world.

The Aristotelian component of Western cosmology had a very firm foundation-it was based upon observation of the natural world. In the second century AD, in Alexandria, the intellectual capital of the ancient world, the mathematician Ptolemy built an intricate, and incredibly complicated, model of the universe based upon Aristotle's cosmology. The Earth was at the center of the universe, and the stars and planets whirled in circular orbits around it. To explain the complicated motions of the planets (such as the occasional backward, or retrograde, motion of Mars), Ptolemy proposed that the planets danced in tiny little circles called epicycles as they spun around the Earth.

Ptolemy's clockwork universe worked beautifully. It explained the motions of the planets to fairly high precision, providing seemingly unshakeable support for Aristotle's theory of the cosmos. By building upon Aristotle's geocentric universe, Ptolemy had fashioned a powerful cosmology, one that had predictive power. Its ability to describe the motion of the planets, along with its "prime mover" that seemed to describe the Christian God admirably well, made the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic universe unassailable until Elizabethan times.

Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmology was embraced by the church, even though it sometimes contradicted the Bible. For instance, Psalm 148 exclaims, "Praise him, ye heavens of heavens, and ye waters that be above the heavens." Though having a water above the heavens seemed to explain both the blueness of the sky and the source of rain, this was forbidden in the Aristotelian universe. Water is a heavy element, so it did not belong above the heavens; it was only allowed to exist in the earthly sphere.

Though the church struggled internally with the contradictions between Aristotle and the Bible, it eventually used Aristotelian cosmology as the basis for its own theology. To attack Aristotle became tantamount to attacking the truths handed down by the pope himself. And when a revolution toppled Aristotle, the church found itself on the losing side. It has never recovered.

Meet the Author

Charles Seife is the author of five previous books, including Proofiness and Zero, which won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for first nonfiction and was a New York Times notable book. He has written for a wide variety of publications, including The New York Times, Wired, New Scientist, Science, Scientific American, and The Economist. He is a professor of journalism at New York University and lives in New York City.

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Alpha and Omega: The Search for the Beginning and End of the Universe 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was such a great book. It helps people who don't really know and appreciate astronomy understand it fantasticly. I am a total astronomy freak, and I learned alot from this book. It was also a fun book to read, so it was a win-win situation. DEFINITELY buy this book, or at least read it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Alpha & Omega delves into the mysteries of the Universe from its beginning to how it will end. Author Charles Seife is not one of the leading frontiersmen of the subject but rather understands it in such a way that he can relay the information to the general public in an understandable way. This is one of the most fascinating topics the human race has ever fathomed to believe in and I believe that is the main reason Seife chose to release this book. He is aware that the topic is immensely complex and compressing it into a completely comprehensible 250 pages is amazing. He breaks down every major achievement on the topic with easy-to-understand language, diagrams, and equations. Accompanied with footnotes (some more humorous than others), this book is hardly boring. I believe that this book is a must for anyone who is curious about the universe¿s greatest mysteries and who finds it amazing that physicists can conceive of theories about something so vast and huge and untouchable and that are actually very accurate. It is not a difficult read and the subject matter is so intense that your head will be swimming for days from the knowledge packed into this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
When beginning to read the book I was a bit weary, but when finished I was quite satisfied. An enjoyable book and in the long run was worth reading.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Charles Seife¿s new book on cosmology is paradoxical. It ought to be outstanding, but it trips itself up on the way to excellence. First off, Seife is without doubt a fabulous science writer, blessed with that rare ability to take seemingly impenetrable concepts and express them in a manageable, interesting, comprehensible way for the lay reader. He has a good command of his subject and an enthusiasm for it that¿s contagious. Seife discusses cosmological theories ranging from ancient mystical and religious philosophies (like Ptolemy¿s simple geocentric model) to the data- and mathematics-driven theories of the 20th century. He suggests that we are in the midst of a major revolution in our cosmological worldview comparable to the Copernican Revolution of the 1500s and the Big Bang theory of the early-mid 20th century. He cites the recent (apparent) discovery of an accelerating cosmic expansion as evidence that our understanding of the universe¿s basic structure is undergoing a major revamp. Seife is at his best when he discusses work on the recalcitrant mysteries of the so-called dark matter and dark energy. Our equations seem to suggest over 90% of the universe¿s mass and energy consists of something other than the matter and energy that we¿re acustomed to, the stuff that we can see with our telescopes and fit into easily-defined particle physics models. The so-called ¿dark matter¿ doesn¿t emit light and does not make its presence obvious, while the ¿dark energy¿ seems to represent something in the fabric of space that¿s pushing it outward¿but nobody really knows. Seife delves into the latest research on these phenomena and presents some plausible explanations, while shedding light on the most fascinating efforts currently taking place among different groups. Seife¿s discussion of the gravity-wave phenomenon¿and the relentless search to detect such waves, is also eye-opening. For all these assets, Seife¿s book seems to lapse uncharacteristically in several places. It¿s beset by a strange dissonance in its tone and what it actually says especially in its later portions. Seife starts out the book (and lines its jacket) crowing about how the biggest mysteries have been solved, how recent work has conclusively answered the most ancient mysteries of cosmology. It obviously hasn¿t and isn¿t even close, and Seife himself seems to know this¿he talks with fascination about the latest oddities of string theory and their still unknowable implications, moving into the realm of ekpyrotic theory and the mind-stretching ideas about parallel universes. So then why does Seife, in so many places, seem to act as though the big questions (even they can even be asked yet) have cut-and-dry answers? He¿s able to venture out and contemplate models of the universe that toss out even the most basic notions of time¿s advance and the structure of matter, yet he winds up falling back on the same old linear, oversimplified assumptions of old. It¿s a highly disappointing mistake. One could chalk his overexuberance up to the hyperbole that draws attention to books, but many other books in this field manage to convey the same level of fascination without falling into the same traps. Seife takes some of the recent discoveries seemingly as established fact when many of them are still under intense debate. He should have plied more into the lingering doubts and questions about the Supernova data and the dark matter work, which would have modestly reduced the ¿ooh-aah¿ factor but made the book far more accurate. The book also seems to have been pushed forward a bit too fast in some places, as there are some needless typos and grammatical errors, and the figures are so-so in their utility to the reader. This book still gets my nod, but I¿d suggest that it be used