The Four Percent Universe by Richard Panek

Back in the fall, I got an email from my UK publisher asking me if I’d be willing to read and possibly blurb a forthcoming book, The Four Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality by Richard Panek. The book isn’t exactly in my field, but there really wasn’t any way I’d turn down a request like that. Coincidentally, I received an ARC of the book a few days later from the US publisher. They weren’t asking for a blurb, but I’m always happy to get free books.

From the title, I expected this to be another book laying out the now-standard model (if not Standard Model) of cosmology, with ordinary matter accounting for about 4% of the energy content of the universe, with dark matter (of an undetermined nature) accounting for about a quarter, and the rest of it being dark energy (of an even more undetermined nature). To be honest, I was a little “meh” about the idea going into the book, as I’ve heard the basic outline of this a dozen times in colloquium talks and pop-science tv shows and the rest. I didn’t see how yet another book on the subject would add all that much.

I was very pleasantly surprised when I started reading the book, because that’s not what this is. Or, more precisely, that’s not all this is. It does contain an explanation of the science, but that’s not the main purpose of the book. It’s not a book about the known facts regarding the nature of the universe so much as a book about the process by which those facts were determined and became accepted.

That story, as it turns out, is absolutely fascinating. Messy, but fascinating.

The first part of the book covers the initial discovery of dark matter via the rotation curves of galaxies– a very interesting story in its own right, particularly the bits about Vera Rubin, who has led a fascinating life. The real meat of the story, though, starts somewhat later, with the last three sections devoted to a detailed chronicle of the development of and rivalry between the two major collaborations– the Supernova Cosmology Project at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, headed by Saul Perlmutter, and the High-Z Supernova Search headed by Brian Schmidt. Both teams hit on the same idea– using supernovae in distant galaxies as “standard candles” to determine the distance to those galaxies accurately, and then combining that information with the red shifts of those galaxies to determine the expansion history of the universe– but they came at it from very different directions. They ended up in a race to see which group would be first to get the data nailing down the nature of the universe, and nearly simultaneously arrived at the same conclusion: that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, contrary to what everybody expected before these observations were made.

The science is exciting and unexpected, but the story of the rivalry is even more compelling. There are numerous aspects to it: a disciplinary rivalry (Perlmutter’s team came from the world of physics, while Schmidt’s team is a more traditional team of astronomers), generational conflicts (as the principals alternately try to find favor with and distance themselves from older, more established scientists), high-stakes scientific politics (as they compete for scarce telescope time), and the difficulty of nailing down an extraordinary claim with extraordinary evidence. All of this is related in a highly detailed and very balanced fashion– Panek has clearly gotten extensive cooperation from both teams, and doesn’t play favorites.

The basic scientific picture has been laid out in a dispassionate fashion in numerous places, but here it’s presented with all the internal details that people in the business are familiar with, but that rarely make it into the media. There’s squabbling over priority, a large collection of outraged phone calls, and a number of uncomfortable compromises. The scene where a NASA official calls in the High-Z team and asks their opinion of the SCP request for Hubble Telescope time, and it takes them a while to realize that he’s offering them time if they ask for it is particularly vivid, and rings completely true.

All in all, this is a terrific book, and I’m happy to recommend it to anybody who is interested in either modern cosmology or the nitty-gritty details of Big Science. It’s a really good read, and the sort of inside look at how science gets done that you don’t often get to see.

So, as you can guess, if you check out the page for the UK edition, you’ll find a blurb from yours truly, reading:

A compelling story of research at the cutting edge of science, with all the personalities and politics that the textbooks leave out.

(And now you’ve also gotten an inside look at how book blurbs get generated…)

6 thoughts on “The Four Percent Universe by Richard Panek

  1. I’ll have to check this one out.

    I strong recommend everybody avoid Bob Kirshner’s “The Extravagant Universe”. I haven’t read the whole thing, but I did read his sections on the rivalry between the two books, and at the end I was so angry I was shaking, and had a hard time talking clearly. It’s crap bordering on libel. (It’s not just me who thinks this; both the reviews in Physics Today and Sky & Telescope pointed out that it was a good book marred by an unpleasant tone in the rivalry section.)

    I found Goldsmith’s “Runaway Universe” much better. The rivalry there is painted much more fairly, and I agreed also with the things that seemed non-optimum in my group. (I was part of the Perlmutter team.)

    Of course, any writer (including Goldsmith) who is trying to tell this story will tend to emphasize things that fit the story and narrative, and the real history is messier and less fitting to a theme than any narrative will make it seem.

    I suppose one of these days I should write my own history of my own memories of this time, at least on my blog.

  2. why in every review i read about this exciting issue, nobody say a word about the chilean team who started all this research and the american thief who stole it and published? ….mmmmmm perhaps its the same reason for western culture to look down to eastern mathematics previous to renaissance and pretend that you have invented everything…

  3. Thank you for this review. It was enough to get me to buy the book, and I’ve just finished.

    Very good indeed.

    I was familiar with the science, I guess, but I still missed a bit more maths in places, but I understand why he didn’t want to bother with it.

    It may well just be my little brain, but I find it hard to keep track of that many ‘characters’. At least there’s an index, but I guess I’ve been spoilt with hyperlinks. (Still an index is a step up from most novels.)

  4. What happen with the two chilean who made the main discoved and the people from Harvard stole all the investigation ?

  5. rafael, recently Mario Hamuy (one of the two chilean who appeared in the book) has won a guggemheim scholardship and after reading this book you dont have to look forward to realize this is a way to clean up the closet for american science community after the shameful incident denuncied by Mr. Panek in his book –

  6. It’s totally shameful what those Harvard ‘scientists’ have done to the chilean team that truly obtained and analysed the data that then they published as theirs. I’m studying Physics, and I think I couldn’t stand that my work (which in science usually represents years and years) is stolen. And now it’s even more revolting as those ‘scientists’ have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics 2011. Shame on them!

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