The Edge of Physics: A Journey to Earth's Extremes to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe

The Edge of Physics: A Journey to Earth's Extremes to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe

by Anil Ananthaswamy

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547488462
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 03/02/2010
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 260,155
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Anil Ananthaswamy is a contributor to National Geographic News and a consulting editor for New Scientist in London, where he has also worked as a deputy news editor.

Read an Excerpt


It was the day after Christmas in 2004, a bright winter's day in Berkeley, California. I was outside a café at the corner of Shattuck and Cedar, waiting for Saul Perlmutter, an astrophysicist at the University of California. The campus is nestled at the base of wooded hills that rise steeply from the city's edge. About 1,000 feet up in the hills is the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). In the 1990s, the UC campus and LBNL housed several members of two teams of astronomers that simultaneously but independently discovered something that caused ripples of astonishment, even alarm. Our universe, it seems, is being blown apart.
 Perlmutter was the leader of one of those teams. His enthusiastic, wide-eyed gaze, enhanced by enormous glasses, along with a forehead made larger by a receding hairline, reminded me of Woody Allen. But what he had found was no laughing matter. In fact, Perlmutter admitted that their discovery had thrown cosmology into crisis. The studies of distant supernovae by the two teams had shown that the expansion of the universe, first observed by Edwin Hubble in 1929, was accelerating - not, as many had predicted, slowing down. It was as if some mysterious energy were creating a repulsive force to counter gravity. Unsure as to its exact nature, cosmologists call it dark energy. More important, it seems to constitute nearly three-quarters of the total matter and energy in the universe.
 Dark energy is the latest and most daunting puzzle to confront cosmologists, adding to another mystery that has haunted them for decades: dark matter. Nearly 90 percent of the mass of galaxies seems to be made of matter that is unknown and unseen. We know it must be there, for without its gravitational pull the galaxies would have disintegrated. Perlmutter pointed out that cosmologists in particular, and physicists in general, are now faced with the stark reality that roughly 96 percent of the universe cannot be explained with the theories at hand. All our efforts to understand the material world have illuminated only a tiny fraction of the cosmos.
 And there are other mysteries. What is the origin of mass? What happened to the antimatter that should have been produced along with matter after the big bang? After almost a century of spectacular success at explaining our world using the twin pillars of modern physics - quantum mechanics and Einstein's general theory of relativity - physicists have reached a plateau of sorts. As Perlmutter put it, he and others are now looking to climb a steep stairway toward a new understanding of the universe, with only a foggy idea of what awaits them at the top.
 Part of this seemingly superhuman effort will involve reconciling quantum mechanics with general relativity into a theory of quantum gravity. In situations where the two domains collide - where overwhelming gravity meets microscopic volumes, such as in black holes or in a big bang - the theories don't work well together. In fact, they fail miserably. One of the most ambitious attempts to bring them together is string theory, an edifice of incredible mathematical complexity. Its most ardent proponents hope that it will lead us not just to quantum gravity but to a theory of everything, allowing us to describe every aspect of the universe with a few elegant equations. But the discovery of dark energy and recent developments in string theory itself have conspired to confound. On yet another winter's day in the Bay Area, more than two years after meeting Perlmutter, I got a taste of just how grave things had gotten in physics.
 It was a late February afternoon in 2007. A conference room on the ballroom level of the San Francisco Hilton was filled to capacity for this session at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Three physicists were arguing about dark energy and how it relates to some of the most serious questions one can ask: Why is our universe the way it is? Is it fine-tuned for the existence of life? Dark energy, it turns out, is not merely mysterious; it seems to be at about the right value for the formation of stars and galaxies. “The great mystery is not why there is dark energy. The great mystery is why there is so little of it,” Leonard Susskind, Felix Bloch Professor of Theoretical Physics at Stanford and co-inventor of string theory, told the audience at the Hilton. He continued in a poetic vein: “The fact that we are just on the knife edge of existence, [that] if dark energy were very much bigger we wouldn't be here, that's the mystery.”
 The hope until recently had been that string theory would explain this, that dark energy's value would fall out naturally as a solution to the theory's equations - as would the answers to other puzzling questions. Why does the proton weigh almost two thousand times more than the electron? Why is gravity so much weaker than the electromagnetic force? Essentially, why do the fundamental constants of nature have the values they do? The question of dark energy is emblematic of such concerns. Nothing in the laws of physics can explain why many aspects of our universe are what they are. They seem to be extraordinarily fine-tuned to produce a universe capable of supporting life - a fact that bothers physicists no end.
 But string theory's hoped-for denouement is nowhere in sight. Indeed, some physicists are slowly abandoning the notion that everything about the universe can be reduced to a handful of equations. In San Francisco, Susskind rose to address this issue. His talk was titled “Why the Rats Are Fleeing the Ship.” However, abandoning reductionism hasn't meant abandoning string theory. Quite the contrary. For Susskind and many others, it has meant embracing the theory in all its mathematical glory, despite its mind-boggling consequences. One of the most outlandish implications of string theory, as it stands today, is the existence of a multiverse. The idea is that our universe is just one of a possible 10 to the five hundredth power universes, if not more. And in this extraordinary scenario lies an answer to the conundrum of why dark energy and other fundamental constants have the values they do. In a multiverse, all values of dark energy and fundamental constants are possible; in fact, the laws of physics can differ from universe to universe. To explain our universe, physicists don't have to resort to tweaking and fine-tuning. If a multiverse exists, then there is a fi- nite probability, however small, that our universe randomly emerged with the properties it has. The laws governing it give rise to stars and galaxies - and, indeed, planets and intelligent life, including physicists asking the question: Why is the universe the way it is?
 This is the so-called anthropic principle, which, loosely stated, says that our universe is what it is because we are here to say so, and if it were any different we wouldn't exist to inquire. The idea is viewed by many as a cop-out, for then physicists don't have to work so hard to explain all things from first principles. Another speaker, cosmologist Andrei Linde, Susskind's colleague at Stanford, recalled his efforts to talk about the anthropic principle to physicists at Fermilab, outside Chicago, nearly twenty years ago. Linde had been warned that eggs were thrown at people who talked about such things, so he began by discussing something else entirely and switched topics midway, on the assumption that the Fermilabbers wouldn't “have enough time to go to Safeway and buy eggs.”
 Given string theory's support for a multiverse, the anthropic principle is gaining traction. But string theory itself is so far from being experimentally verified that many physicists find it difficult, if not impossible, to take its implications seriously. The third participant that afternoon, cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, then of Case Western Reserve University, summed up the argument for the opposition. “I think you can imagine a theory where the multiverse would be science. If one had a theory, a real theory, a real theory that predicted lots of things we see about the universe, predicted lots of things we could test, but also predicted lots of things we couldn't test, then I think most of us would say we believe the things we cannot test [such as the existence of a multiverse],” he said.
 Susskind was staring daggers at Krauss by then. But Susskind's somber tone at the end of the session suggested that it wasn't going to be easy to answer critics. “All I can say is that we worry about this,” he said. “[String theory] is the biggest question in physics right now. Can we make observational science out of it?”
 One thing all three speakers agreed on: Only experiments could break this impasse.
 The greatest advances in physics have come when theory has moved in near-lockstep with experiment. Sometimes the theory has come first and sometimes it's the other way around. For instance, it was an experiment performed in 1887 by Albert Michelson and Edward Morley - showing that the speed of light is independent of the motion of the observer - that influenced Einstein's 1905 formulation of the special theory of relativity. A decade later, Einstein produced the general theory of relativity, but it was only after experiments in 1919 verified its fascinating implication - the bending of starlight by the sun's gravity - that the theory gained widespread acceptance. And throughout the early to mid-1900s, theorists and experimentalists jostled and outdid each other as they shaped quantum mechanics. An equally fruitful collaboration occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, when particle physicists theorized about the fundamental particles and forces that make up the material world and experiments confirmed their startlingly accurate predictions. But this energetic interplay is now deadlocked. The discovery of dark energy and dark matter, along with the failure, so far, of experiments to find the Higgs boson (thought to give elementary particles their mass), has allowed theorists free rein. Ideas abound, adrift in a sea of speculation. Can the next generation of experiments in cosmology and particle physics help anchor the theories to reality?
 This book is my attempt at an answer. It is a quest that took me from London, where I lived and worked, to the distant reaches of the Earth, from desolate deserts to the depths of derelict mines, from mountaintops to the bottom of the world, looking for cutting-edge experiments that promise to drag physics out of its theoretical morass. Many of the experiments I visited are tackling, each in its own way, the twin mysteries of dark matter and dark energy. But I also went to see the telescopes and detectors that are searching for antimatter, the Higgs boson, and neutrinos, which are elusive subatomic particles pervading the universe. Neutrinos barely interact with matter and travel unhindered through space, carrying information about the distant reaches of the cosmos in ways that no other particle can. All these experiments are building the steps of Perlmutter's metaphorical stairway. My journey, too, became a metaphor: for the forays that scientists are making to the very limits of their understanding - to the edge of physics.
 The story begins with a pilgrimage to the 100-inch telescope at Mount Wilson in California, where Hubble discovered that our universe is expanding, thus laying the observational foundation for the big-bang theory and modern cosmology. The 100-inch pushed the technological boundaries of its time, but it has long been outstripped by modern telescopes now scanning the night skies. Every evening, they open their giant domes to peer more than halfway across the universe, gathering light, sometimes one photon at a time. The instruments that analyze this light are equally powerful, such as the 8.6-ton spectrograph that's helping astronomers study the universe slice by slice with incredible accuracy. In contrast are the small, hockey-puck-size silicon and germanium detectors, so exquisitely engineered that they are handled like works of art. They wait patiently, day after day, week after week, for the merest hint of dark matter.
 These experiments are dwarfed by gigantic balloons that soar into the stratosphere bearing experiments that search for primordial antimatter and study the cosmic microwave background (a radiation left over from the big bang).
 Experimental physics reaches its pinnacle at the Large Hadron Collider, the world's largest particle smasher. Machines weighing thousands of tons monitor the paths of subatomic particles with micrometer precision. These particles spew forth from collisions of proton beams - each beam carrying as much energy as a 400-ton train going 150 kilometers per hour. Superconducting magnets that are colder than deep space strain to keep these beams confined to their paths around a 27-kilometer-long underground tunnel. New particles that emerge from the cauldron of proton smashups may contain anything from the Higgs boson to dark matter to the first hints of extra dimensions.
 These magnificent telescopes and detectors can work only in the most extreme settings. Their surreal environments are the unsung characters in this unfolding story - venues rarely appreciated and often overlooked. The cold, dry air above the Atacama Desert high in the Chilean Andes, where not a blade of grass can grow, allows starlight that has traveled for billions of years to enter a telescope without being smudged in its final approach by something as mundane as water vapor. (Space-based instruments, of course - such as the Hubble Space Telescope - don't have to contend with the atmosphere's deleterious effect on light.) The crystalline clarity of Lake Baikal in Siberia is crucial to a pioneering underwater neutrino telescope, and Russian physicists endure the piercing cold to camp on the frozen lake and work on their submerged instrument.
 Descending into the Earth's crust affords similar benefits. Deep within an abandoned iron mine in Minnesota, physicists hunt for dark matter, their detectors shielded from the chaos of cosmic rays by a half mile of rock. The sweat-drenched miners who dug these mines with nothing more than drill bits and sledgehammers could hardly have imagined the role their mine now plays in deciphering the nature of our universe. Meanwhile, a vast and arid land in the interior of South Africa - a desolate expanse devoid of pollution - has been proposed as the site of the world's biggest radio telescope, its three thousand antennas capable of sweeping across vast swaths of the universe faster than any instrument ever built.
 As extreme destinations go, there are few that compare with Antarctica, on average the coldest, driest, and highest continent on Earth. It's a land so frigid that a sharp intake of breath can sear one's lungs. Moist exhaled air freezes in an instant, and mortal danger, in the form of snow-covered crevasses, is only a moment of distraction away. Still, cosmologists cherish the Antarctic Plateau for its thin, dry, stable, and unpolluted air, and they are building gigantic telescopes to probe the cosmic microwave background with a precision that's impossible to emulate almost anywhere else on Earth. But it's not just the air above Antarctica that attracts the scientists. They are also turning the kilometers-thick ice at the South Pole into a neutrino detector. Nowhere else does there exist a block of material so massive, clear, and solid that it can be used to study the slipperiest particle in the universe. A frozen wasteland could lead us toward the correct theory of quantum gravity.
 This book is a paean to the remote regions that are the soul of today's experimental cosmology. They astonish with their eloquence, whether it's the Milky Way strewn across a dark Chilean sky or the ethereal Hanle Valley ensconced in a secluded corner of the Tibetan Plateau, shielded from the world by the 8,000-meter peaks of the Greater Himalayas. Despite their differences, these places share a profound minimalism: There is nothing extraneous, none of the noise or distractions of modern society. A glaciologist I met in Antarctica spoke of the “absolute stillness” he felt on that continent, faced with only the elements, which were too extreme to ignore. Cosmology needs these places if it is to solve the pressing questions of our existence. 

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The Edge of Physics: A Journey to Earth's Extremes to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Jvstin on LibraryThing 8 months ago
The Edge of Physics: A Journey to Earth's Extremes to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe by Anil Ananthaswamy is not quite what it seems.While the title promises a look at the bleeding edge of physics and cosmology, this book in actuality has a broader canvas. Anathaswamy, a journalist at the New Scientist, focuses on the places he goes and the people he meets on his journey to understand the experiments, equipment and the people associated with them. High energy physics requires special conditions to have their detectors work. If you want to detect WIMPs, look for primordial antimatter, and try and find Higgs Bosons, you need special equipment, which just can't be built anywhere. In this book, Ananthaswamy chronicles his journeys to these often remote locations and talks with the people there. In the midst of this, the book is filled out (some might say padded) with a large number of digressions. In detailing his trip to Antarctica, for example, Ananthaswamy feels compelled to discuss the race to reach the South Pole first by Shackleton and Scott. It really has little to do with the physics experiments going on at Antarctica, and while its a fascinating bit of history, it is out of place as far as the title of the book is concerned.This portion, and almost all of the other portions of the book read like travelogue, as Ananthaswamy details the effort he has to take in order to get to some of the more remote locations where the physics experiments are taking place, such as Lake Baikal, the Chilean Desert, South Africa, and the Soudan Underground Mine in Minnesota. Those far more interested in the physics are going to be annoyed by these portions of the book. For myself, I liked these digressions, and accepted them as part of the matrix of the book. I was fascinated by, for example, his journey to Lake Baikal. I didn't know much about the lake, and in reading this book I learned as much, if not more about the lake than about the neutrino detector submerged there.It's a relatively conversational tone of a book, with no equations and not a lot of hard science. It's well edited and a very easy read. I think that the target audience for this book are those who have taken physics in high school, maybe some general science in College, but do not generally have a strong science background. My mother is has no special science background. and no post-secondary education I think she would be able to understand and enjoy this book. Conversely, those who have physics degrees, and have a stake in the "cage match" that is going on between String Theory and Loop Quantum Gravity should stay far away from this book.Ananthaswamy does not "discuss the controversy", to coin a phrase. While the information on the experiments might be interesting to physics experts, the non physics portions of the book will probably not be to their taste. If you are looking for a book on the level of Lee Smolin or Brian Greene, no matter which camp you support, then this book is definitely not your cup of tea and you probably will be frankly bored by large portions of this slim volume. If your interest is more broad, and your commitment to controversies in the field are not intense, then this relatively painless look at the field, and more especially, the people and places associated with high energy physics is entertaining and informative, even if (and for me especially because) it does contain a wide ranging view of the people and the places the physics takes place.
timtom on LibraryThing 8 months ago
The Edge of Physics is an excellent foray in the complex field of cosmology, as it explains the various models of the universe through the experiments that aim to prove them right or wrong. By following the author's journey to the inhospitable places where these experiments are being run, the reader gets to understand the beautiful complexity of the questions being tackled, along with their historical backgrounds. Ananthaswamy is a terrific writer, managing to explain very complex theories in easy-to-understand terms, resulting in a popsci book that reads like a thriller!There's one big thing missing: pictures. Almost all settings in the book are in fascinating edges of our planet: Antartica, the Andes, Hawaiian volcanoes, the shores of Lake Baikal and so on... and I really missed some pictures to put the experiments in their own context. True, one can always find some on the Internet, but I found myself hugely frustrated by the single black-and-white photo illustrating each chapter. Mr Anathaswamy, if you need a photographer to illustrate the second edition, take me with you! :-)
ReadThisNotThat on LibraryThing 8 months ago
The Edge of Physics is a highly enjoyable non-fiction book that explores physics through geography and travel. Ananthaswamy travels to some of the most incredibly extreme places on Earth to visit the experiments and projects that are hoping to provide new insights in the field of particle physics. The entire book has a nice colloquial tone to it which makes the hard science understandable to lay readers by combining the most scientific explanations with the author's personal experiences and thoughts. Each chapter features a visit to one unusual location, from California's Mt. Wilson to the Franco-Swiss border where CERN's Large Hadron Collider lays miles underground. I thought this book was easier to read than Leon Lederman's The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?. The Edge of Physics doesn't provide the same in-depth scientific explanations that Lederman's book offer, but both books are very interesting and informative reads. Ananthaswamy's descriptions and reflections on the places he visits outshine his explanations of the science he witnesses. The explanations of particle physics that Ananthaswamy provides should be understandable to any reader with a bachelor's degree but for readers who are wholly unfamiliar with science and physics the book offers two detailed appendices for reference. The Edge of Physics is a unique science book as it examines the foundations of modern science, the potential impact on future science due to the current experiments and new scientific theories being developed, how the experiments are being done, and where all this amazing science is taking place both in the US and abroad. Because this book relies heavily on travel and location it also makes mention of climate change and global warming as these changes can adversely effect the experiements and projects he visited. I would recommend this book to high schoolers thinking about majoring in science once they get to college, readers who enjoyed The God Particle, fans of extreme travel, and people who are curious about the Large Hadron Collider as fears about the LHC have been widely publicized in the media and the information provided in this book may help to allay some of those fears. I checked this book out from the library and I'm glad I checked it out rather than purchasing it because it doesn't have a high re-read value for me, but I don't work in the scientific field and am not engaged in any scientific research. For researches, science majors and those working in the scientific industries I think this book is well worth purchasing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
First non fiction I’ve read in decades. Couldn’t put it down!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
TMT-2018 More than 1 year ago
The author presents experimental sites/laboratories that are at the cutting edge of contemporary cosmological studies in a unique, personal, and tangible way. It's this aspect of first-hand accounts told by one who has made the trek to these various facilities that sets the book apart from others in the genre.
SudeshKannan More than 1 year ago
I love reading and watching TV programs on science and world travel though I had a very challenging time with quantum physics at college. I have always been fascinated and continue to do so by the age-old questions about the universe and matter. I waited for my copy of "The Edge of Physics - A Journey to Earth's Extremes to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe" with mixed feelings - excitement, anticipation and anxiety about my ability to understand complex physics concepts. I was pleasantly surprised and entranced by the new book by Anil Anathaswamy, a consulting editor for New Scientist magazine ( He spins a fascinating tale, shifting from continent to continent to as he follows the work of scientists attempting to unravel the mysteries of our universe and structure of matter. Ananthaswamy presents very easy-to-understand explanations regarding "what we think we know" about dark matter, expansion of universe and multiple universes. I particularly enjoyed his travelogue and insight into the "human" side of the scientists. How many of us would be willing to leave the comforts of our home to work in the extreme edges of the earth? Here is a person who did just that and the 'icing on the cake' is that he has shared his learning experiences with us "Arm-chair travelers". His light-hearted comments and self-deprecating humor add a very personal touch to this amazing and eminently readable book. His childlike curiosity and willingness, to undergo challenging trials and tribulations in his quest, make the book a testament to his dedication and professionalism. If you are looking for a book about basic physics, astronomy and great travel stories, I recommend this book whole heartedly. Do check out the book as also the website It has some splendid photos and astounding information Sudesh Kannan PhD Co-author "How to Beat the Heart Disease Epidemic among South Asians"