The 4% Universe: My Washington Post review

The Washington Post asked me to review  The 4 Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality. Back in my green days as a science writer and editor, I kept up fairly well with things cosmological, but the seductions of biology have distracted me from the sky for some time now. So it was a pleasure to get back up to speed–and to discover just how weird things have gotten in the universe–with Panek’s book:

In 1969, an astronomer named Jeremiah Ostriker realized that the Milky Way was spinning too fast. That may sound odd, given that it takes the sun 230 million years to make a full orbit. But when Ostriker tried to simulate the Milky Way on a computer, he found that it was spinning so quickly that it should have ripped itself apart long ago. There weren’t enough stars to hold it together.

Ostriker went to his fellow Princeton scientist James Peebles to share his puzzle. “There’s something wrong here,” Ostriker said to Peebles. The two scientists decided there could only be one solution: The stars we can see in the Milky Way are just a small fraction of the actual galaxy. They are embedded in a vast, unseen halo, made of an unknown stuff that has come to be known as dark matter. When Ostriker and Peebles looked to other galaxies, they found hints of dark matter there as well.

Other astronomers didn’t want to believe it. After all, they had spent the past four centuries learning about the universe by collecting the light of the universe in their telescopes. Now it seemed they were missing most of the cosmic show. But as Richard Panek chronicles in his fascinating new book, “The 4 Percent Universe,” it turned out that there was a lot more wrong with the universe than even Ostriker had realized and that his and Peebles’s work was only the beginning of an enormous undertaking by many scientists.

The latest surveys of the universe indicate that only 4 percent of it is made of ordinary matter. Nearly 23 percent is made up of dark matter, which some physicists suspect consists of wispy subatomic particles that may someday be caught in a detector. And the remaining 73 percent is made up of something far more baffling: an energy that is causing the universe to expand at an ever-increasing rate. Scientists call it “dark energy,” and they have no idea what it is. “Get rid of us and of everything else we’ve ever thought of as the universe,” writes Panek, “and very little would change”…

You can read the rest of the review here.

7 thoughts on “The 4% Universe: My Washington Post review

  1. It seems to me that when it comes to astronomy (and biochemistry and physics and other fields) that mankind is still in the part of the learning curve where every week or so scientists observe phenomena that are baffling, or have even been declared impossible up until then. We are still in the part where every big discovery leads to even more questions than answers, and we find out yet again how profoundly ignorant we are.

    Mankind is still so ignorant in some fields, that we don’t even know how little we know. Dark Matter, Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MOND), and other theories are merely today’s best guesses as to what really exists, and what is really going on.

    I am mildly annoyed that so many astronomers (and physicists) state their theories to others as if the theory was a long-proven, immutable law of nature. I can understand their frustrations that their fields are not zipping along like the fields of electronics and computing are. But I think a LOT more humility is called for.

    Scientists want to build on foundations laid by previous experts in their fields, but mankind’s tools are not yet up to most of the challenges posed by astronomy, biochemistry, or subatomic particle physics, so the scientists make their best theories (such as String Theory and Dark Energy) and hope somebody somewhere achieves a breakthrough in the mean time.

    When mankind really understands these fields, our kids will have toys that float using anti-gravity powered by a 9 Volt battery, and most forms of cancer will be cured by swallowing a pill, and many people will have walked on the Moon, on Mars and on the moons of Saturn and Jupiter.

  2. Any other theory or model that got it as wrong as the Big Bang model did would have been binned long ago. But the Big Bang has so much momentum that scientists are willing to invent more than 75% of the universe from whole cloth just to make it work.

    I note that the steady state theory was dismissed because it required an extra hydrogen atom per cubic light-year, which just goes to show…

    And we look back with contempt at the Earth centred universe model because of those epicycles that had to be added to planetary orbits. Not that a few epicycles weren’t needed for the sun centred model, but compare the adjustment that we have to make to the BB model. Indeed, the degree of faith needed to keep the BB model afloat (faith in non-empirically derived parts of the model) is challenging faith based religions.

    It would be prudent and far more scientific to discard the BB model and start from scratch building science on science, not on faith and wishful thinking. The furthest galaxy clusters have all been shown to be mature galaxies, not young as predicted and the latest one discovered is seen at 12.6 billion light years or 1,100 million years after the BB or just 700 million years after the first star formed..
    First star at Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_bang
    Most distant galaxy at Physorg http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-01-astronomers-distant-galaxy-cluster.html

    But if we could see back even further we’d be able to see a central cluster of matter from which the Milky Way and Earth came from…but how could that matter be in two places at once? And why, at ever greater distances, is the universe ever bigger when all theories say it was smaller in the past??? When I asked this question at sci.physics nobody knew but a few lettered men tried to make up a just so story right there and then…apparently no-one asks the tricky questions…

  3. Inflation theory was invented to explain how, in the Big Bang theory, the universe went from a pin point to a diameter of 150 billion light years (according to some) in an extremely short period of time. In this theory, literally all matter and energy that existed, spontaneously traveled outward at trillions or quadrillions of times faster than the speed of light. And then, when the inflation stopped for some reason, the “normal” slow expansion of the universe commenced, and continues to this day. Okaaaaaaaaay.

    This is an example of scientists making a best guess towards explaining something that we have not yet come close to understanding. I would like to refer to the points I made in comment #2 above.

  4. The usual percentage of the Universe keeps fluctuating according to the author, but my favorite is: 4% Atoms, 21% Dark Matter, and 75% (brand new) Dark Energy (2010). To state that there is a Dark Energy is pure fiction, in my opinion, since Dark Matter pre se may be the “force” of nudging galaxies apart when in an overabundant state and/or keeping everything in its place when in a stabilizing state, such as a steam/mist/quantum foam. Hence, no Dark Energy.

    I am also annoyed (as is Wil) that theories are stated as if they exist in a proven mode, which is totally false. They are theories being examined.

    I am also in total agreement (as is Mr. Stonjek) that the Big Bang Theory needs to be abandoned, due to Time and Temperature sequence figures which are constantly being fudged to fit the scenario and cannot be explained as logical physics. The only new theory on the scene is the Sun Creation Theory of 2008, which posits a first Sun. No explosions, just a first Sun.

    New thinking is required.

  5. A dark matterless explanation is that the observable portion of he universe is considerably less dense than the unobservably further out portion. The gravitational attraction of all that unseeable mass is causing the expansion.

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