Book Review: The Edge of Physics

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edge of physicsThose of you who are non-technical should not be put off by the title of this book, which conjures images of arcane equations and theories.

It is in fact a travelogue – a writer’s journey around the globe to visit sites at which the most extreme science is being done, and in the process, explains the background of the science for the layman. The science he investigates is all about understanding our universe, from the origins of that universe, down the structure of the very small.

And very entertaining it is.

Mind you, some familiarity with the ‘big questions’ in physics won’t go astray – in fact the author provides as appendices brief synopses of the standard model of particle physics, and the standard model of cosmology (i.e. the big bang). Incredibly, he does this in just two pages each.

By assembling these stories into one book, the author places a strong focus on how big science needs to be to answer the really big questions. While theoretical physicists can sit with a pencil and paper to do their work, the experimentalists (and engineers who, of course, rule) need to get out and build stuff to test theories.

They build radio telescopes that span continents. They build optical telescopes that require immense structures to support and adjust them. They adapt cubic kilometers of clean ice at the South Pole to build a detector capable of catching fleeting particles from the edge of the known universe, in the hope of testing theories of the very origins of the universe. They deliver sensitive instruments to specific points in our solar system (Lagrange points – low energy parking spots) to probe the structure of the early universe, and they build huge underground tunnels in the shape of a ring to smash up particles and probe their constituents in an effort to determine, amongst other things, why stuff has mass.

I found this book engaging, with the stories of the author’s discoveries well told. Some parts do get a bit technical, but it’s easy to skip over those if you’re not interested, and instead focus on big picture.

Give it a try.

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