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

Anil Ananthaswamy
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Ananthaswamy goes to nine unpleasant locales around the world to track work being done be scientists to find, well, nothing. It seems there are several particles coming at us from outer space that shouldn't even be there, strange forces that mean little to you and me, but, evidently, are of some mythical importance to these theoretical (perhaps also mythical) scientists. Strange beasties --- the particles, not the scientists --- with names like dark matter, muon, antiproton, fermion, boson.

Why do they --- the astrophysicists --- care? Because these things tell them what they apparently think they ought to know about such abstruse questions as what was the universe like moments after the big bang? Or: Is the universe flat or curved, curved positively or curved negatively? Or: What is dark matter? How come we can't account for 94% of the weight of the universe?

Such questions for those of us wrestling with the next mortgage payment, or this morning's hangover, or the fact that one of the kids is suddenly going bananas on drugs --- such questions from outer space about Higgs' boson or chaotic inflation of the universe can but mean little in our day-to-day, but for people we've never heard of, people named Hewish, Dirac, Pihana, Peebles (or Ananthaswamy) ... for them, this things are terribly important.

For Ananthaswamy the search for odd matter or even odder antimatter means nine fascinating trips to obscure places where strange men and women mutter incomprehensible phrases or write incomprehensible formulas on their blackboards, operating strange machines (some of which fill whole caves), in strange places like the Soudan Mine in Minnesota (looking for dark matter), the even colder McMurdo Station in Antarctica (looking for antiparticles), the boiling hot Karoo part of the Kalahari Desert in South Africa (looking for neutral hydrogen atoms).

These hyperscientists with their hyperbudgets can apparently go to the very ends of the earth and spend months stuck on a mountaintop or in a hole in the ground or on the burning sands or in the freezing rime looking for ... nothing.

If for instance, one of them discovers no WIMPs (weakly interacting, massive particles) at Soudan, over the next ten years, will it affect your mortgage payment, your hangover, your kid getting stoned in the playroom? No: it will just mean that there may or may not be any dark matter. It's not that all this poking around in the heavens or in the ground means something: it may well mean nothing. Which, it seems, may be the point.

"Why are we here?" is one of the questions these scientists seem to be concerned with, even though you or I might just answer: "I dunno. Why not?" Why, asks Andrei Linde of Stanford University, why is the universe just right for life ... our life, human life? Ananthaswamy suggests: if it weren't just right for life, we wouldn't be here to ask why the universe is just right for life. Or better said, "Why are we here?" Can it not be that we are here so we can ask "Why are we here?''

§     §     §

When I finally made it through The Edge of Physics, I was inspired to write a small drama in tribute to the author, and his study:

    We were standing in the middle of a herd of bisons thundering through our microscopic field of vision. She began to take off her red shift, but I was in no position to examine her dark matter. "Does it even matter?" I asked her as I probed her gluons. "Perhaps it's a matter of anti-matter," she murmured, turning on her muon detector ... which turned on her with a snarl.

    This may turn out to be a cold dark matter, I thought. I told her I wasn't sure we could afford the chaotic eternal inflation which was creating a black hole in my account. I slipped an antiproton Icecube into her drink and began to speak of the anthropic principle. Turns out she had been on a tramp intergravitational detector.

    She then showed me what was left of her string, theory, and asked if I would like to do some quantum tunneling. "I think it would be a big bang," I said. I offered her a Milky Way, and said, "by the way, my name is Macho." "Amanda," she said. I slipped on my slitmask, did a blueshift, stopped at the waystation to fill up my Gauss tank, and we went off in a joint decoherent orbit.

--- C. A. Amantea
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH