The Edge of Physics: A Journey to Earth's Extremes to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe Paperback – Jan 14 2011
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"Physicists are trying to understand the furthest reaches of space and the furthest extremes of matter and energy. To do it, they have to trek to some of the furthest places on Earth—from deep underground, to forbidding mountains, to the cold of Antarctica. Anil Ananthaswamy takes us on a thrilling ride around the globe and around the cosmos, to reveal the real work that goes into understanding our universe."—Sean Carroll, California Institute of Technology, and author of From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time
"The Edge of Physics...is, quite simply, the ultimate physics-adventure travelogue...as an adventure story and a fly-on-the-wall account of remote places that most of us will never visit, The Edge of Physics is brilliant." —PhysicsWorld
"Ananthaswamy displays a writer's touch for the fascinating detail...whether he is in an abandonded iron mine in Minnesota's Mesabi Range or the frigid Siberian expanse of Lake Baikal, he finds intrepid physicists and explains to us why these weird places are the only locations on the planet where these experiments could be done." —Washington Post
"A grand tour of modern day cosmology’s sacred places...evocative...engaging…refreshing...a taste of science in the heroic mode." —Sky At Night
"Ananthaswamy, a science writer and editor, smoothly weaves together the stories of people who help push science forward, from principal investigators to research institute gardeners, with exquisitely clear explanations of the questions they hope to solve -- and why some research can be done only at the edge of the world." —ScienceNews
"A remarkable narrative that combines fundamental physics with high adventure... Ananthaswamy is a worthy guide for both journeys." —New Scientist
“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... Ananthaswamy conveys that cutting-edge science is a human endeavour.” —Nature
"Ananthaswamy’s investigation of current experiments in physics bypasses the mathematics of the field, making it easier for the average reader to dig in and enjoy the amazing discoveries and research methods that he encounters. The author has a knack for intertwining an overview of the purpose of these experiments with a finely balanced dose of related history and trivia. He also exhibits poetic touches here and there as he shares colorful vignettes from each of his destinations." —Curled Up With A Good Book.com
"While Ananthaswamy—a consulting editor at New Scientist inLondon—focuses heavily on the science, The Edge of Physics reads like a travel-adventure story or a work offiction." —Failure Magazine
"From the top of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea to Switzerland’s Large Hadron Collider and more, Ananthaswamy paints a vivid picture of scientific investigations in harsh working conditions...even for readers who don’t know a neutrino from Adam, these interesting tales of human endeavor make The Edge of Physics a trip worth taking." The BookPage
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The writing style is clear, friendly, engaging and mostly quite accessible (I "mostly" because I found the last chapter to be a bit otherworldly (literally) and more of a head-scratcher; but such abstract ideas have often proven to be essential for the healthy progression of science). Although this book can be enjoyed by anyone, especially those interested in how cutting edge physics is progressing, avid well-read science buffs may not find too many scientific surprises. However, all readers would likely be fascinated by the author's narrative describing the extreme living and working conditions being endured all in the name of science.
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To potentially answer such queries, The Edge of Physics: A Journey to Earth's Extremes to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe takes us first to Mount Wilson in California where "[t]he observatory [George] Hale built is called the birthplace of modern observational cosmology." Next, the author, journalist Anil Ananthaswamy, descends into the bowels of the Soudan Mine in Minnesota which now "hosts one of cosmology's most sensitive experiments: the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search (CDMS)." Among the other sites he visits are the Siberian neutrino telescope at Lake Baikal, another neutrino array telescope at the South Pole, an antimatter balloon experiment in Antarctica, and the European CERN Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Still another project isn't lashed to earth somewhere but has been sent out 900,000 miles into space. It's "the Planck satellite, the latest in a small but select group of pathbreaking space probes designed to map the cosmic microwave background." It was launched by the European Space Agency (ESA) in May, 2009. Of course, its scientists remain earthbound to monitor and analyze its anticipated wealth of relayed information.
Ananthaswamy skillfully integrates technical engineering details, clear background about the theories that might be verified and the human element. He interviews many of the people who brave often harsh, unforgiving climates and geography to build, operate, and interpret the minutely sensitive and calibrated instruments and their collected data.
In the epilogue Ananthaswamy journeys to Mount Saraswati in Tibet where the new Hanle Observatory is part of "an international collaboration called COSMOGRAIL (for COSmological MOnitoring of GRAvItational Lenses)." He notes there "I became aware of the deep silence enveloping me....It is abundantly clear, standing in Hanle, as it had been in places like the South Pole, Lake Baikal, Paranal, and the Karoo, that the natural calm of these places is what makes them ideal to cosmology. We need to protect them.... If we pollute them, we will destroy our best chance of deciphering our own beginnings, of understanding ourselves." Finding suitably remote, unspoiled locations on earth constantly becomes more difficult, but as THE EDGE OF PHYSICS so compellingly relates, we can still learn a great deal from telescopes and other instruments deployed here if we don't despoil the remaining wilds where they can be maximally effective.
This is a superb resource for anyone who eager learn about the current state of experimental physics, the technology required to carry out the research, the geography that best sustains various projects, the theories being tested, and the men and women who are on the front lines constantly evaluating, innovating, and stretching the boundaries of our knowledge about the cosmos.
April 15, 2010: Some reviewers have made a note of the fact that the book does not have any high-quality pictures. To access additional content, pictures, videos and other details can be found at the web site for this book, [..] plus the author's blog on his travels to remote parts of the planet. Check it out!
In each chapter, the author details:
- why a particular location was chosen e.g. very little radiation/cosmic rays reach the depth of the Soudan Mine.
- how the instruments at each location are constructed e.g. "drilling" holes at the South Pole with hot water
- what the instruments are doing e.g. detecting neutrinos coming from the center of our galaxy
- why the experiments are important e.g. trying to determine whether our universe is flat or has a negative/positive curvature
In addition, he provides a window into the extraordinary lives of the people building the instruments/running the experiments/analysing the results, people who have devoted years of their lives and/or endure extreme conditions in the pursuit of science. He also sprinkles a number of non-scientific stories and facts about the locations themselves (Lake Baikal has a surprise at the bottom of it courtesy of the Russo-Japanese War) into the mix.
While the chapters can feel a bit long winded and repetitive at times, the book as a whole provides an engaging, enlightening read, a great springboard, should you desire, from which to explore the science, the places and/or the history in more depth.
The author doesn't cover the edge of physics. He journals his visits to ten sites that have advanced equipment for astronomy or physics. He tosses in a little physics background, mostly string theory and precious little else.
Unfortunately, Ananthaswamy works in journalism. So, he wrote a journal instead of a science book. This, despite a title that indicates the opposite. Today's "journalism" has an increasingly solid track record of agenda-driven, unbalanced writing. In keeping with this trend, Ananthaswamy wrote an unbalanced piece.
I've read a fair number of other books on physics (written by researchers, not journalists with zero bona-fides on the subject) and watched several videos geared toward the more curious segment of the public. So, I'm aware of the subject's landscape. Ananthaswamy doesn't seem to share this awareness. Instead, he seems fixated on string theory. It's as if he read some books on it and hasn't read anything else on physics. While string theory is fascinating and complex, Ananthaswamy:
1. Explains it superficially, at best.
2. Proceeds under the assumption it is "the" theory rather than one of several competing theories currently being explored.
3. Gives the impression that all of the current experimentation is based on string theory (it's not).
Balanced coverage of the leading theories that are on the edge of physics would have resulted in a much better book. To fit this in the same page count, the book would need to focus on the core topic without all of the off-topic material that should have been cut anyhow. In places, I wondered what the heck the author's ramblings had to do with the subject--and I'm still wondering.
One good approach in the editing process would have been to remove the string theory comments from the narrative and write an appendix summarizing the leading theories. Then, re-title the book so it reflects the content. This way, the title actually fits the book and if you're interested in the background science you can read an overview.
1. The book is extensively researched. Unlike the typical journalist author, Ananthaswamy used credible sources.
2. The copyrighter (Sara Lippincott) is astoundingly good. There are few errors in the book (well below normal).
3. It's a good read. The prose is smooth and clear (kudos to the editor, Amanda Cook, but she should have cut more material).
This book would make a nice introduction for someone newly interested in what's going on with the General Theory of Relativity today and what it's like to visit some of the sites where experiments and research are taking place. It does not take you to the edge of physics, though it does take you to some edgy places in remote, hostile locations.
This book consists of ten chapters, each of which is devoted to describing the author's visit to a particular research site. Chapter 8, for example, journals his visit to Antarctica.
The experiments covered are: 1. Mount Wilson Observatory above LA. 2. CDMS (dark matter experiment) in the Soudan Mine, northern Minnesota. 3. Lake Baikal (Russia) neutrino experiment. 4. European Southern Observatory (ESO) telescopes in Chile. 5. Mauna Kea Observatory (Hawaii) focused on the DEIMOS experiment. 6. The SKA (Square Kilometer Array) radio telescope in the Karoo Desert, South Africa. 7. BESS experiment flying out of McMurdo, Antarctica. 8. IceCube at the South Pole. 9. ATLAS detector at CERN's LHC. 10. Planck satellite for measuring the microwave background radiation.
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