THE universe holds secrets that are beyond human comprehension. According to scientists, “roughly 96 per cent of the universe cannot be explained with the theories at hand.” Cosmologists world over have been conducting experiments and speculating on the various probable theories to explain the phenomena called universe. The need to understand it has become imperative, as the sand is running of the hour glass. We now know that the universe is expanding, we also know that it is expanding at a faster pace than we thought. We do not know why and how to stop it.
Edge of Reason: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Cosmology by Anil Ananthaswamy is a quest to attempt an answer to some of the questions relating to the experiments going on in the world to understand and explain universe, questions such as, if these researches would give us an insight, even if it is only a small one, into the mystery.
The author travels to extremely varying geo-locations in the world, linked by the common fact that they are all places far removed from human habitation, beyond the dust and sound of the world busy with its noisy humdrum existence. One location is on top of a steep mountain, another in the cold deserts, yet another a km under the surface and more. It is in a sense a travelogue, a scientific one. He takes the narration back and forth, across continents, setting pace for the reader to catch up.
His first locale is Mount Wilson, in California where a 100-inch telescope scans the sky. The telescope, when installed in 1917 was the largest in the world, till 1948. The author gives the fascinating story of the finding of the place and the installation of various telescopes there and the persona involved in those dramatic moments.
From California, he travels to an abandoned mine in Minnesota, nearly a kilometer below the earth’s surface, where “one of cosmology’s most sensitive experiments” is housed, the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search (CDMS). The highly protected sensitive equipments here are meant to record any evidence of dark matter. The details of the site are mind-blowing.
The third stop is Lake Baikal in Russia. It contains 20 per cent of the world’s unfrozen fresh water. The water is clean. The underwater telescopes are searching for “little neutral ones” – elusive subatomic particles called neutrinos.” The telescopes are placed 1.1 km below water.
Cerro Paranal in Chile, is a 2,635-metre-high mountain and its uniqueness lies in the fact that it offers 350 days of clear sky. Four gigantic 23-tonne mirrors have been mounted making what is called the Very Large Telescope. According to Ananthaswamy “Each mirror, made of a high-tech glass-ceramic called Zerodur, has been cast in Germany from 45 tons of the molten material.” The mirror was sent to France, where it was polished relentlessly for two years, “so that the 50-square meter surface came within 0.00005 millimeter of the required curvature.” This mirror, 8.2 meters in diameter became the largest of its kind manufactured and the steel frame supporting it weighs 10 tonnes. The VLT is big enough to gather light from supernovae that exploded when the universe was just half as old as it is today. Amazing!
From Chile, the author goes to Hawaii, where the mountain Mauna Kea towers over the clouds. Because of its position, the air above is stable and most suitable for observation, where astronomers track the movements of stars the whole way, from one end to another.
This time, Ananthaswamy takes off to the Kalahari Desert in South Africa. It is one of the least populated areas, sometimes as low as one person per square kilometer. Huge radio telescopes are set to come up here, if South Africa wins the race with Australia to host it. From the desert, the author goes to the frozen continent Antarctica, where experiments are on to sift through billions of cosmic-ray particles for traces of antimatter. Even a single sighting would shake up cosmology, as it would point to “vast regions of antimatter in space, entire stars and galaxies made of it”, says the author. This journey ends in the South Pole, where a neutrino telescope is “on its way to becoming one of the only instruments that can probe the effects of quantum gravity.
After visiting the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland, where the world’s largest particle accelerator is being built, Ananthaswamy’s last stop in the book is nearer home, the Himalayas. Here, atop Mount Saraswati in Ladakh, is mounted a 2-metre-class telescope. The telescope is robot controlled from Bangalore.
Research in each of these locations has been discussed elaborately by the author, a consultant editor of New Scientist in London. The sense of awe the author feels while in these locations catches on to the reader quiet effectively. An engaging book, especially for those who have empathy for science. But the information on the on-going research by committed men around the world is awesome.
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