The Edge of Physics by Anil Ananthaswamy

If you are the kind of person who believes that science explores reality and would love to catch up on  the latest explorations in cosmology and subatomic particles, then The Edge of Physics (2010) by Anil Anathaswamy is the book for you.  For years I’ve wanted to know where the big experiments are taking place, and even daydreamed of being a science journalist whose nine-to-five job would be to visit them, well Anil Ananthaswamy has my dream job.

The Edge of Physics is mostly a travel book, and Ananthaswamy even has photos for each of the sites he visited at his web site, collected chapter by chapter.  What Anil has done, and I hope he pardons my familiarity, because typing his last name is work, is weave science history in with his travelogue and then explain what each experimental site he visits hopes to achieve. 

To enjoy this book does not require a deep understanding of experimental physics or math, just a sense of wonder.  I’m praying to Einstein that  PBS’s NOVA makes a multipart series based on this book.  The average person is afraid of science, and Anil really goes a long way to making it accessible.  Anyone who hates that we’re spending billions on theoretical science needs to read this book too, because it makes you wish they’d spend billions more, because in the end, Anil helps us understand the mysteries that are remaining to be discovered.  And I hope I live long enough to hear those results reported too.

On the day I started this book I experienced a bit of serendipity.  The first chapter is about Mount Wilson and why the work it did back in the 1910s and 1920s is so important to the work being done today.  While listening to the book on audio I wished I could see pictures of what Anil was writing about.  Well, my wished was grant that very day, because that night NOVA started a two part Hunting the Edge of Space that featured photos and films from the early days of the Mount Wilson Observatory.  This documentary overlapped wonderfully with The Edge of Physics

Now, if NOVA would only film the other chapters.  Most people are familiar with visual telescopes but how many have heard of a neutrino telescope?  One of the more adventuresome trips Anil makes is to Lake Baikal, to where scientists brave the Siberian winter to build an underwater telescope beneath the ice of a large freshwater lake.  Anil also visits two sites in Antarctica, Chile, Hawaii, South Africa, deep underground in Northern Minnesota, India, and of course Switzerland where the LHC is located.

I read Sky and Telescope every month but I never knew there was so many big telescopes around the world.  I wish someone would build a web site for telescopes like they have for the Top 500 Supercomputer Sites.  And I also wish someone would build the Top 500 largest science research sites.  And reading The Edge of Physics I could imagine a new tourist industry based on visiting scientific research.  I don’t have the money to take up that hobby right now, but I’m inspired to see if I can find web sites for all the places Anil visited in his book:

All this travel is glamorous but the real value of The Edge of Physics is what Anil reports about the status of all these experiments.  He really is trying to show his readers where the edge of physics lies, and what that means.  I can’t summarize that, you need to read the book, but if you haven’t read any science books in a few years, you’ll be surprised by how far science has gotten to explaining all of reality.  We are far from finished, but wow, scientists are hot on the trail of explaining almost everything.  Research in particle physics, dark matter, dark energy, cosmic background radiation, string theory, multiverses, radio astronomy, neutrino astronomy, are converging towards filling in missing puzzle pieces. 

It’s like doing a Sudoku puzzle.  Finding any one number can solve problems in all nine quadrants.  Breakthroughs at any one of these sites Anil visits means more evidence for the other sites.  Everything is interrelated.  I’d love to be able to list all the areas of research covered in this book with hyperlinks and explanations, but I’d have to write a book and Anil Ananthaswamy has already done that for us.  Be sure an visit Anil’s blog for newer reports.

JWH – 4/24/10

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