posted May 17, 2011 07:55 PM
Many of us interested in the space program share an interest in astronomy, the ancient science that studies the heavens.
Cosmology, which seeks to understand the origins and nature of the universe, lies at the intersection of astronomy and physics. Over the last few years there have been revolutionary developments in cosmology, including the Big Bang, inflation of the universe, the continued acceleration of galaxies in a flat universe, fluctuations in cosmic background radiation, and the existence of dark matter and dark energy.
For example, recent results from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WAMP) satellite tell us that our universe is 13.75 billion years old and that it is composed of only 4.5% matter as we know it. The other 95% of the universe is dark matter (23%) and dark energy (73%), about which we know very little.
The history of modern cosmology is brilliantly chronicled by science writer Richard Panek in the new book The 4 Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality (2011, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Panek explains the science but also tells the personal stories of the great astronomers and physicists involved in a race to understand how the universe developed and what is its fate.
Panek describes the discoveries of the past few decades well, although the technical side can sometimes be heavy reading. His recounting of the rivalry between two main groups of scientists is riveting. They race to get data, analyze it, and publish it to get priority in scientific history. The human frailties of ego, ultra-competition, theft of data and ideas, and overbearing pride are all on display.
The book is not always an easy read because of the complicated science, but it is a worthwhile one to understand the recent evolution of cosmology and the great tasks ahead -- to discover exactly the nature of dark matter and dark energy. The more we learn about our universe, the more we learn how much we don’t know.