November 2003

David Harris

nonfiction

Alpha & Omega by Charles Seife

Cosmology is a field in the midst of exciting times. For the first time in history, we have some very good ideas about how the universe began and how it will end. And yet, we have also discovered that we can only see about 5% of the universe. That is not to say we haven't looked far enough into the distance or only looked in certain places. Rather, we know that if we count up every single thing that is even potentially visible to us at this time, we can only account for one twentieth of what is around us. The rest, appropriately called dark matter and dark energy, has not yet been illuminated to us. That's an exciting challenge for physics, and an exciting story to watch unfold.

In fact, it is this grandest story of all, the history and future of the universe, that Charles Seife, award-winning science writer and staff journalist for Science magazine, tells us in his second popular science book, Alpha & Omega: The Search for the Beginning and End of the Universe.

Until February 2003, physicists could only say that the universe was somewhere between 12 and 15 billion years old. But now, they can pin this done much better -- to a relatively precise 13.7 billion years. They have a reasonably good picture of the early stages of the universe. They also know pretty well how the universe will evolve in the future and what sort of fate awaits us. And although they've been able to guess at these things in the past, 2003 marks the time when scientists entered the age of precision cosmology, where they can stop saying things happened at "roughly" such-and-such a time or in such-and-such a way. Ingenious experiments and observations are allowing them to hone many of the wildest theoretical conjectures about the universe.

At the same time, physicists are discovering how little we know about the universe. The sense of adventure that comes from making quantifiable progress in a vast and progressively more ambitious venture is well captured by Seife in this admirable book.

Seife guides us quickly through a brief history of cosmology but concentrates on the most interesting ideas currently discussed in cosmological circles. His coverage is right up-to-date including the important results that were being announced just as the book was due to go to print. You'll find out about dark matter and energy, the shape of the universe, supersymmetry, the most elusive particles we know of (the neutrinos), and the particles that theorists expect us to find but for which we do not yet have strong evidence. Rather than trying to summarize any of these topics here, read Seife's book because he explains it efficiently and clearly.

Many popular science books try to capture the lay reader's attention through the use of superlatives and grandiloquent phraseology. However, Seife sticks to a no-frills journalistic style and lets the story of cosmology speak for itself. It is a surprisingly effective technique if you are used to reading the purple prose of so much popular science writing. Most pop-sci writing is replete with extended metaphors, with the writers seemingly unable to trust the readers to put together the pieces in their own minds. Many authors seem to want readers to believe that the science they are describing really is completely equivalent to a story about the world already familiar to them. But cosmology is different to everyday experience and Seife knows that telling the story straight, with concision and clarity, is a powerful technique. It seems we have his extensive journalistic experience and detailed knowledge of the field to thank.

Seife also knows that anybody who picks up a book about the story of the universe is probably prepared to turn their mind on rather than off. That is not to say you need to be genius to follow the text. In fact, this is some of the easiest-to-read science that you are likely to come across. This is partly because Seife judiciously uses metaphor to help the reader construct their own pictures, piece-by-piece, and helping them follow the logic of how scientific arguments are put together. But each metaphor serves only to help you understand a small piece of the jigsaw and isn't overstretched. That is really quite important because the problem with metaphors is that they always break if you stretch them far enough. Rather than try to make you believe you understand the science because you believe the metaphor, Seife uses the metaphor to help you understand a small piece of the science and then you can put together the pieces of the science to reach an understanding of the bigger story. It is a very effective style and one that I wish were used more often.

Even though this might sound like the science comes piecemeal, never do you feel that are bombarded with a laundry-list of facts that you are just expected to believe and absorb. At every stage, Alpha & Omega steps you through the reasons why scientists believe what they do, using the evidence collected in experiments to justify each step. The idea is to take you through the process so that you both understand and believe the results at the end. Both strengths and weaknesses of scientists' understanding are pointed out along the way so you never feel that you are being brainwashed into one specific point-of-view. Seife manages to avoid the trap that many scientists who also write fall into, that is, of overqualifying every statement in the name of absolute accuracy. He keeps his text accurate by relegating to footnotes those picky little details that scientists feel are necessary but might impede a lay reader's progress. If you feel comfortable with the ideas in the main text, extend yourself with the footnotes. Seife also keeps most of his opinions separate from the fact by moving them to footnotes.

Cosmology is a field that abounds with cranks and crackpot theories. Seife wisely avoids discussing the obviously crazy ideas but does include those ideas that might be termed "highly speculative" -- ideas that have a good chance of being wrong, but for which there is not yet any concrete evidence to rule them out and the potential for them to lead to greater understanding. In this, he follows the methods of science itself. Emphasize the ideas that have the most evidence but also consider other plausible ideas that could influence the results. As the saying goes, keep your mind open, just not so open your brain falls out.

As the subtitle of this book says, the story is the search for the beginning and the end. We clearly do not have all the answers yet. But Seife convinces us that these answers really can be found, because the nature of our current understanding is demonstrably guiding us ever closer to them and the future plan for physics is well-aimed at the gaps in our knowledge.

Seife predicts that in a decade, we will know the answers to many of our outstanding questions. But he also knows that a whole new set of questions, as yet unconceived, will take their place. We can look forward to another version of this book at that time, clearly showing how physicists achieved such great advances but imbuing us with a new excitement about the new questions on their minds. Alpha & Omega by Charles Seife
Viking Press
ISBN: 0670031798
294 pages