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Up the cosmos

Hunting Down the Universe: The Missing Mass, Primordial Black Holes and Other Dark Matters

Little, Brown: 1997. Pp.278 £18.99. To be published in the United States by Addison-Wesley on 1 October at $25

Occasionally a book can be judged by its cover. This book's cover is black-on-black and barely decodable if you tip it at an angle to the light. You just know that this is going to be an outrageous book, and the author, the Edinburgh astronomer Michael Hawkins, does not disappoint.

He begins with a fierce attack on the likes of Steven Weinberg, Karl Popper and anyone else with the temerity to suggest that science is an objective search for an underlying reality. Addressing the suspicions of the most vehement critics of organized science, he states that, yes, “science is a social process beset by vested interests and power struggles, and scientific ‘truth’ is therefore determined by consensus, or even complicity”. Strong stuff, this. Wittgenstein and Fred Hoyle also figure prominently, but one has a hard time keeping track of what side each is on. The general idea is that good theories — terrific theories even — get rejected by the “establishment” as they break too many rice bowls.

It is not too much of a surprise to learn that the author has a little theory of his own which, if true, is nothing less than “the most important cosmological breakthrough of the century”. Is he pulling our leg, or is there something here to be taken seriously? Or a little of each?

Hawkins believes that small, primordial, omnipresent black holes, each about the size of a basketball and with a mass comparable to that of the planet Jupiter, comprise the cosmological “missing” mass. He believes there are enough such black holes to close the Universe and bring it into consistency with Guth's elegant inflationary model.

Virtually all astrophysicists view this hypothesis as highly improbable, for a variety of solid reasons. But it is not flatly contradicted by existing data. Moreover, the hypothesis does make predictions — quite remarkable predictions — that are subject to verification or disproof. As the hypothetical objects drift randomly across the line of sight between us and any distant quasar, their gravitational fields will momentarily focus the quasar's light in our direction. The result is that quasars should fluctuate in brightness.

Quasars do in fact fluctuate in brightness! All astrophysicists except Hawkins believe that these fluctuations are intrinsic to the quasar and are due to flarings of the unstable disc of gas that makes the quasar shine. Hawkins is pretty much alone in believing that the fluctuations are the proof of his theory, and that the “establishment”, embodied in the Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees (an unlikely villain if ever there was one), is prejudicially blind to the truth. So this book is his appeal to that greater court of educated lay opinion.

It's a good yarn. But I think the actual situation is more prosaic and less polarized. Hawkins's papers do pass peer review and are published, in Nature no less. His ideas are improbable, but observationally testable. In due course, as more data on quasar fluctuations accumulate, his hypothesis is very likely to be disproved to the satisfaction of any sapient individual. If, on the other hand, his theory is observationally confirmed, then he will without doubt be acclaimed by the establishment, and I will eat this review. (It's brief, just in case.)

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Press, W. Up the cosmos. Nature 388, 138 (1997).

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