Last month a crisp new copy of Anil Ananthaswamy’s The Edge of Physics arrived at my door. I’m not getting tired of receiving review copies, so I’m always excited to check out the newest additions to the science publication world. Often physics books can be a mixed bag; always written with passion, but sometimes missing the mark. Ananthaswamy’s book, however, didn’t disappoint.
One of the main reasons why I pursued an academic career in physics — apart from wanting to remain a student for as long as possible — was that I have a curiosity as to how the Universe works. But for physics to push the boundaries of science, it must probe deeper, further, longer and higher than any experiment has ever done before. This is the reason why you’ll find telescopes sitting atop the impossibly arid Cerro Paranal, a 2.6 kilometer-high mountain in the Atacama Desert, Chile, and a neutrino observatory buried 2.5 kilometers below the South Pole.
To detect the faintest light from the most distant galaxies to the most ghostly particles being generated at the core of our sun (neutrinos), physicists need to design such extreme experiments to minimize interference from the atmosphere (by climbing up the highest mountains) and the constant barrage of cosmic rays from deep space (by burrowing deep underground).
When reading Ananthaswamy’s adventure, I not only felt that schoolboy urge to peer deep into space on a cloudless night, I also remembered my personal experience when working on Svalbard, deep within the Arctic Circle for 5 months in 2002 with the EISCAT radar system — a rather extreme observatory itself. In a little under 300 pages, he travels, quite literally, to the ends of the Earth in “search of the telescopes and detectors that promise to answer the biggest questions in modern cosmology,” giving me the urge to see more observatories besides EISCAT.
But it’s not just about the nuts and bolts of telescopes and detectors; Ananthaswamy captures the human element expertly, describing each encounter with scientists, locals and guides with a personal charm. Where humans are, whether perched atop Hawaiian mountains (the Keck telescopes) or working a couple of thousand feet under the Minnesota countryside (the CDMS or Cryogenic Dark Matter Search), there’s always a human story to be told, often with humor.
“How easy would it be to dispose of a dead body at the South Pole?” Ananthaswamy writes as he recounts a conversation he overheard in the U.S. Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. It turns out that it would be pretty much impossible to find a body dumped down a 2.5 kilometer-deep hole being drilled for the IceCube neutrino telescope, according to a group of burly ice drillers. Fortunately for Ananthaswamy, and the rest of the South Pole residents, they were only joking.
The Edge of Physics is filled with entertaining anecdotes like this, but each seamlessly blends with succinct explanations about the extreme science these observatories are pursuing. But that doesn’t mean it gets over technical, this book is perfect for anyone who has an interest in the cutting edge of physics, with a hunger to learn more.
And yes, even the Large Hadron Collider makes an appearance.
All in all, I really enjoyed The Edge of Physics, and considering I’m not the fastest of readers, I found myself taking time out to read the next chapter when producing space content for Discovery News. It was nice to read a physics book that finds the right blend between telling a story and delivering physics in a non-threatening way. Ananthaswamy does allow the theme of the book to move into some more extreme cosmological theories (such as the “multiverse” and string theory), but I don’t think he gets too bogged down in the details, still explaining all the concepts in a fluid manner.
I will be eagerly awaiting Ananthaswamy’s next publication, and if the photography on his website is anything to go by, it could be a dazzling photo album, a pictorial tour of some of the most extreme locations on the planet. But in each of these locations there will be one predominant native captured on film: the physicist.
Anil Ananthswamy, consulting editor for New Scientist, who also has a blog discussing similar topics that can be found in The Edge of Physics.
The Edge of Physics: A Journey to Earth’s Extremes to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe is already in U.S. stores, but it is set to be launched on this Thursday (April 22) in the UK with a different title: The Edge of Physics: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Cosmology.