The Edge of Physics

May 9, 2011 | By | Reply More

I watched Anil Ananthaswamy’s TED talk video “What it takes to do extreme astrophysics” last Sunday. I thought he was eloquent and passionate. Intrigued by his way with words, I picked up his book – The Edge of Physics, on which his talk was based – from the local library the next day. I now need to add it to my own.

Ananthaswamy has created a fascinating survey of history and extraordinary efforts of today’s cosmologists to uncover the knowledge of the origins and the fundamental structure of the universe. It’s a quick read, even though I found myself pausing to seek out (and read) Hubble’s 1929 paper “A Relation Between Distance and Radial Velocity Among Extra-Galactic Nebulae”; Ostriker, Peebles and Yahil’s 1974 paper “The Size and Mass of Galaxies, and the Mass of the Universe” and to look up where these researchers are working. I thoroughly enjoyed his narrative and particularly the composition of the book. Ananthaswamy’s wonderful story has exquisite descriptions of the exotic and dangerous locations where the investigative scientists have found the “environmentally silent” conditions necessary to the detection of theorized particles and energy or of nearly unimpeded observation of the universe. Transitioning smoothly from optical cosmology to detection of neutrinos, dark matter, dark energy, Higgs bosons and more, Ananthaswamy excels at simplifying complex subjects, his narrative interwoven with the history of the building blocks leading to the current competing theories.

As an engineer, I wonder how knowing the nature of dark matter or the validation of supersymmetry or superstring theories is useful; or more practically, how that knowledge can be used. But as a former physics major who never lost interest in the subject, I love the quest for knowledge. It doesn’t matter if it can be used for anything practical.

I was asked in another thread what I might consider literature (with a capital “L”)…I’m thinking The Edge of Physics qualifies for me.

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Jim is a husband of more than 27 years, father of four home-schooled sons (26, 23, 16 and 14), engineer delighting in virtually all things technical, with more than a passing interest in history, religions, arts, most sciences (particularly physics) and skepticism.

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