Can the state-of-the-art story of our universe -- what mankind knows and how we know it, along with the parts only fervently suspected -- be recounted in less than 300 pages? Meaningfully, that is? Can the essentials of quantum physics, relativity theory and a small galaxy of more recent mind-bending, multidimensional conceptualizations be boiled down for general consumption in a book addressed to a fairly literate but not necessarily numerate public, all without resorting to a single equation? On the evidence of "Alpha & Omega," the bouncy new entry of veteran science writer Charles Seife: Not quite.
Wait -- that is hardly to imply that "Alpha & Omega" should be scratched off your list, whether the list is for your own edification or that of your cosmology-struck middle-school student. At the minimum, Seife provides a wonderfully clear and concise introduction to terms often too loosely bandied about, and to their interrelationships in the ongoing attempt of physicists to erect a unified theory of the universe. Read this, and you can pepper your conversation with terms like "flavored neutrino," "Hubble constant," "exotic dark matter," "cosmic microwave background" and, of course, the deliciously superlative "supersymmetry" with much greater confidence than before. Guaranteed.
"To ancient peoples, the dome of the sky was a real object; the Earth was enclosed by a beautiful sphere that shone blue in the daytime as the sun slowly traveled from east to west." Seife wades into his subject matter gently, one might almost say disarmingly, lingering for the first couple of chapters in the familiar shallow waters of pre-big bang cosmology. (Indeed, given the scope of the task still ahead, so much space is devoted to excoriating the Roman Catholic Church for its long refusal to abandon Aristotle and face heliocentric reality that one wonders whether the author himself was affected by time spent in a parochial school.)
Structurally, Seife bundles Western science's gradual, albeit recently accelerating insights into the "laws" governing the cosmos into a triad of revolutions. Following on the First (Copernican) Revolution came the early 20th century Second, powered by Edwin Hubble's astronomical discoveries and startled recognition that ours is only one among a host of galaxies -- "Worse yet, the farther away the galaxy was, the faster it was speeding away. This meant the universe is flying apart!"
From the soon-to-be boggled reader's point of view, here is where Pandora's box springs open. Einstein's theories, vastly improved observational instruments, developments in quantum mechanics and particle acceleration -- these and related breakthroughs have brought cosmologists and physicists within a tantalizing hair of being able to account for all the components with a single symbol: the Greek letter Omega, to mean "the amount of stuff in the universe." The "stuff" includes matter (whether baryonic, dark or exotic) and energy (strong, weak or zero-point). As the subatomic bifurcations begin rapidly to mount up, the back-of-book glossary becomes indispensable.
The Third Revolution, currently raging in ivory towers and observatories, involves the quest for whatever energy source continues to blow the universe apart -- and what holds it nonetheless together, at least for a time. Even a nodding acquaintance with the Third requires one to tackle such mental calisthenics as superposition (e.g., when is a cat both alive and dead?) and M-theory (evolved from a previous incarnation, superstring theory -- 11 dimensions, anyone?) Prudently, "Alpha & Omega" does not seriously attempt a thorough instruction in M-theory.
Seife's armchair approach, honed in the recent success "Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea," eschews formal mathematics and welcomes readers unversed in advanced physics. It succeeds to a degree. Geeky stabs at humor, such as titling a chapter "The Good Nus," may not be everyone's cup of gluon. But the whimsical, hand-drawn illustrations are valuable visual crutches when it comes to such notions as the curvature of spacetime, parallax and failed P symmetry. One picture demystifies primordial sources of Omega in a sort of inverted USDA food pyramid.
For all its user-friendliness, "Alpha & Omega" provides not so much an understanding as a better awareness of what and how much there is yet to be understood. Some may be disappointed to find cosmology's biggest questions, harkening back to the metaphysics of earliest thinkers, only touched on. Is our universe a singular phenomenon or might an infinity of universes exist? Might ours merge with another, instead of either freezing or imploding to nothingness? Is there a "prime mover"?
However, the "search" in the subtitle suggests Seife's emphasis on "how" over "what." Like a series of dispatches from science's front lines, his timeline of cosmological research focuses on the hottest new developments and projects, astronomical price tags included. "Alpha & Omega" went to press in February; it is spiced with fresh discoveries and disputes. Like a reporter scribbling right up to deadline, the author added four pithy appendices: the last one is called, suspensefully, "Some Experiments to Watch."