Sunday 6 May 2012

Book Review: "The 4% Universe" by Richard Panek

Now. Interesting. Came as a shock to find that I was 9 years of age before the universe existed.

I don't mean the theoretical universe. The Big Bang. But rather the experimental proof that a) there was a relic from the big bang called the CMB and b) that we live in a single galaxy amongst billions of galaxies in just our bubble of visible universe.

It was 1965. I was 9. Living in Wiltshire I think - bit hazy on that long ago. Countryside. Not the smoke filled cities of the midlands that I had in earlier times. Sitting alone next to ponds and hedgerows marvelling at the sheer fecundity of life. The smallness of it and the sheer frickin' scope of it. Ooo! Look! A tiny lizard. 1/2 inch long. England 1960's Imperial measures - get over it. Jesus F**kin Christ it was tiny, but it had ribs, lungs, a liver and kidneys and was an apex predator.

1965. Only 40 years after Quantum Mechanics came into being. Hubble had only died 12 years previously. COBE was 24 years in the future. My school bus went past a MOD site which posted the state of nuclear emergency. We were all going to die. Horribly.

1965. 4 years before the moon landing. LBJ just sworn in. Funeral of Winston Churchill. First American combat troops arrive in Vietnam. First nuclear power plant goes into orbit. Yes. Really. SNAP-10A.

1965. Australia announces it will send combat troops to Vietnam and then sends the poor sods. Oh. And Liverpool wins the FA Cup Final, beating Leeds Utd 2–1. (I was into football back then)

1965. Mariner 4 arrives at Mars. Cigarette advertising is banned on BBC. Watts - need I say more? Auschwitz trial sentences 66 ex-SS personnel. Tom & Jerry debuts on US TV. The Pillsbury Doughboy is created.

1965. World population. 3 billion. Half what it is today.

1965. The universe is proved to exist.

Anyway, I digress. This book is a wonderful historical romp through the politics, machinations, hatreds, lives and loves of a handful of scientists trying to turn cosmology from metaphysics into physics. From Penzias and Wilson to Perlmutter, Turner and Vera Rubin to Smoot and all the others. Nobel prizes, Gruber prizes, antarctic expeditions, Hubble Space Telescope intrigue, Deep Field and what not. I *remember* 1987a for f**ks sake, and was excited.

Love it.

So. Where are we now? Dunno. And neither do these guys, but it's a start. What a frickin' wonderful path we've travelled. What great things we've uncovered. Frickin' hell. I love this stuff.

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