The Edge of Physics: A Journey to Earth's Extremes to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe/Dispatches from the Frontiers of Cosmology

  • Anil Ananthaswamy
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Gerald Duckworth: 2010. 336 pp. $25/£16.99 9780618884681 | ISBN: 978-0-6188-8468-1

Amazing discoveries tend to follow a satellite launch or telescope's first light. Physicists have traced galaxies across most of the visible Universe and have seen the top quark. Yet they lie awake at night worrying that they don't know what makes up 96% of the Universe, what dark energy is or why anything has mass.

Clear views from Chile's Paranal Observatory are protected through agreements to limit light pollution by neighbouring mines. Credit: ESO/H.H. HEYER

This gap between theory and observation concerns science writer Anil Ananthaswamy. In The Edge of Physics, he travels the planet to see for himself the experiments that are challenging our view of nature. Along the way he meets the researchers who suffer for their science in bleak locations: from macho Siberians who sleep on the heaving ice of Lake Baikal to catch neutrinos, to technicians who work every day deep in a Minnesotan mine to detect dark matter. Ananthaswamy seeks to capture the peculiar motivations that draw people to these remote sites of discovery.

Confessing that his journey is a pilgrimage, Ananthaswamy begins and ends his tale at observatories that share peaks with monasteries. The first site is Mount Wilson in California, where Edwin Hubble measured the expansion of the Universe in the 1920s. Ananthaswamy explains how a reverential attitude was expected from astronomers working there, and how for many years women were banned from the site because they were considered a distraction. Reflecting this austere atmosphere, the astronomers' basic sleeping accommodation is still called The Monastery. Ananthaswamy stays on for a few nights with the neighbouring community of Camaldolese monks to contemplate the site in solitude and silence. One of the monks, a distant relative of George Ellery Hale who founded the observatory in 1904, explains how he too seeks “a deep experience that one can't express”.

Ananthaswamy takes a lift some 700 metres below ground into the vast caverns of Soudan mine in Minnesota to interview scientists working on the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search experiment installed there. He flies to Siberia to visit the neutrino-detection experiment in Lake Baikal's crystal-clear waters. Scientists here must endure sub-zero winter temperatures to check the detectors that hang on strings like jellyfish tentacles deep below the frozen surface. To bring good luck, the Russian physicists toss some of their vodka onto the ice.

Chile's Paranal observatory and Hawaii's Mauna Kea telescopes highlight clashes between science and locale. Mauna Kea's volcanic peak is considered sacred by many Hawaiians, who leave offerings on its summit and have tried to limit development of the site. Astronomers have generally responded with respect, by negotiating agreements to protect the mountain's unique environment. By contrast, Paranal's only neighbours in the high Atacama desert are vast copper mines. Chileans travel far to work in this arid landscape, where nothing grows except the lush vegetation cocooned in the geodesic dome of the observatory's space-age hotel. The gardener who tends this isolated oasis empathizes with the astronomers: “We are devoted to the things we know, and we are a very good complement.”

The political agendas behind these experiments are largely skated over. An exception is the negotiations that have led to South Africa — together with Australia — becoming a proposed site for the Square Kilometre Array, a giant radio telescope due to be built over the next decade to scan for pulsars and the first stars. This ambitious plan for South African astronomy hinges on the enthusiasm and savvy of Bernie Fanaroff, radio-astronomer-turned-political adviser to the South African government.

The final chapters explore the most extreme experiments. Ananthaswamy heads to Antarctica to witness balloon launches delayed by bad weather and the struggles to bury the IceCube neutrino detectors beneath the ice. Struck by the complexity and scale of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, Europe's particle-physics lab near Geneva, Switzerland, he pauses to note the tendency of the researchers to describe the ephemeral particles they seek in certain terms. Although he does not travel into space to visit the Planck spacecraft in person, he writes of how its forthcoming results on the cosmic microwave background will soon challenge cosmologists' knowledge of the early Universe.

The Edge of Physics is an accomplished and timely overview of modern cosmology and particle astrophysics. Ananthaswamy's characterizations of the many physicists he meets are on the mark; yet the actors' number and brevity on the stage may baffle the uninitiated. It is especially gratifying that he spends time with the dedicated technicians and support staff, not just the big scientific names.

Ananthaswamy conveys that cutting-edge science is a human endeavour. Ending his journey, and his story, at India's Hanle observatory in the Himalayas, he again notes the confluence of an observatory and a monastery at a remote location. He urges that these sites must be protected from environmental threats such as climate change and oil pipelines. A more pressing brake to grand experimentation is the global recession. Yet his interviews show that understanding ultimately comes from individual curiosity and motivation, not expensive equipment. Perhaps in the quieter economic times ahead, physicists will have more liberty to contemplate the Universe around them.