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The Light Fantastic

THE WHOLE SHEBANG: A State-of-the-Universe(s) Report.\o7 By Timothy Ferris\f7 .\o7 Simon & Schuster: 393 pp., $25\f7

May 18, 1997|JAMES TREFIL | James Trefil is the author, most recently, of "Are We Unique? A Scientist Examines the Unparalleled Complexity of Human Intelligence." He is the Clarence J. Robinson professor of physics at George Mason University

In this cleverly named book, veteran science writer Timothy Ferris takes us on a tour of the horizons of current thinking about the origin of the universe and the fundamental nature of matter. His purpose in "The Whole Shebang," at least in part, is to explain why scientists today often argue that we cannot understand the universe (the largest thing we can think of), unless we understand the nature of subatomic particles (the smallest things we can think of). In Ferris' words, if we want to "find our place, we must know the place, cellar to ceiling, from taproots to the stars, the whole shebang."

He begins with the story of how human thought about the cosmos evolved over the millenniums, moving from the Greek astronomers to the Big Bang to satellite observatories. This is a familiar story, but it is well told, filled with personal vignettes of the men and women involved in the discoveries and with vivid analogies that show the almost miraculous nature of the scientific concepts involved.

For example, in discussing the expansion of the universe, Ferris considers the work of cosmologists who argue that the universe seems to have almost (and perhaps exactly) enough mass, or "critical density," to bring its current expansion to a halt. He equates the difficulty scientists have in finding this density with the prospect of finding one of those unusual natural formations, a balancing rock in an Arizona mountain range, at the exact moment when it's about to tip over. Ferris writes: "Balancing rocks are rare, but we're more likely to encounter one than to happen upon the scene just as the rock has started to fall. [In the language of cosmologists] . . . an almost critical density is a rock just starting to fall."

Throughout the early part of the book, Ferris presents historical developments with an eye toward illuminating current controversies among cosmologists. One argument that has been going on for more than a decade, for example, concerns the age of the universe. The basic technique astronomers use to estimate this number involves measuring the current rate of expansion and then "running the film backward" to see when the expansion started. Because measuring the expansion rate involves measuring the distance and rate of recession between us and the farthest galaxies--measurements that push the envelope of what is technically possible--there has been a minor donnybrook going on between those who think the universe is about 15 billion years old and those who argue for an age of about half that figure.

One problem is that if the "young universe" people win, we will have the seemingly paradoxical situation of the universe being younger than the oldest stars. Actually, this isn't so strange. When Edwin Hubble first measured the expansion rate in the 1920s, the estimated age of the universe was actually younger than the Earth. How this all got resolved, and where things stand now, is admirably dealt with in Ferris' discussion. I learned something new from these chapters, even though I follow this field fairly closely.

The book also plunges into the strange and wonderful world of modern cosmology, with its arcane language of general relativity and superstring theory. Once again, Ferris gets us through the difficult stuff by skillful use of analogy and anecdote. A black hole, he says, is "like a prisoner of war reciting only name, rank, and serial number. . . . It will tell you nothing but its mass, its rotation, and its electrical charge."

He goes on to deal, one by one, with the central notions of modern cosmology, including dark matter (the most abundant form of material in existence) and superstring theory (our best candidate so far for a "theory of everything," which says that the substance of space is organized into very tiny strings of subatomic particles). These chapters survey the latest ideas about the early stages of the universe. They are full of interesting bits of history and personality. In describing the work that led to the realization that most matter is made from quarks, for example, Ferris mentions that the early theories were (for technical reasons) referred to by physicists as the "eightfold way." He then goes on to explain why they were called that and he even refers to the first sermon of the Buddha when he talked about the Eightfold Way as "right understanding, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration."

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