Author: Katherine Freese

Publisher: Princeton U. Press

ISBN: 978-0-691-15335-3

Science doesn’t seem to be that popular anymore, especially among GenXers and Millenials, so calling this book a popular science book might be hurtful. It’s a good one for many reasons, but an important one is that it’s the story of the scientific method in action.

Said method enables and leads to scientific progress. Experimental data suggests rules for organizing that data, and these rules lead to a set of simpler rules, sometimes called laws, that is called a theory. New phenomena is discovered and new tests of the theory are proposed. Sometimes, the theory can survive; other times, band aids are needed or the theory has to be discarded. The Cosmic Cocktail offers a concrete example of this process, an example from the cutting edge of physics, where particle physicists, astrophysicists, and cosmologists are pushing the frontiers of knowledge forward.

I’m at a position in my life where I admit my research days as a theoretical physicist are long gone, but I like to stay as current as possible. How do I do that? With the internet (invented at CERN, by the way); magazines like Scientific American, New Scientist, and Science News; and excellent popular science books like this one. Dr. Freese’s tome is part memoir, part explanation of data and experiments that produced them; part a peek into complex theories; and part a dictionary or thesaurus of sophisticated terminology that is only decades old. But, above all, this book is a celebration of the scientific method.

Because I was a physicist (emphasis on “was” because now I’m a full-time writer), on my first casual reading of this book I could skip many background pages. I also do a second reviewer’s reading, though, so I can testify that the reader should be able to easily digest those background ideas to prepare for the the real fireworks—and they’re dazzling.

First, dark matter. What is it? It isn’t the dark side of the Force, with dark energy the good side. (The two don’t seem to have a relation.) It’s the need for some mysterious something to explain why the motion of the stars in a galaxy don’t follow the rules one might expect from mechanics, for one thing. That motion can be explained by postulating a diffuse sphere of massive particles that surronds each galaxy. Call it what you will, scientists are still trying to find it. Dr. Freese explains how they’re (and she) are going about this. There’s a lot of fascinating material here as the tale progresses. The reader will learn about WIMPs, MACHOs, and other possible creatures in the particle physicist’s imaginary zoo (imaginary for now because they’re conjectured entities). I like the idea of supersymmetric WIMPs serving double duty to save QCD’s CP invariance, but dirty data often gets in the way of elegant theory.

Second, dark energy. The quirk in theory here is that the Universe isn’t only expanding, as discovered by Hubble, but that expansion is accelerating. The reader will learn about Einstein’s cosmological constant (maybe not so constant), zero-point energy of quantum fields, and string theories. He will find less on dark energy in this dark story, which appears illogical because it’s estimated that 69% of the Universe is dark energy, compared to only 26% for dark matter (ordinary matter only contributes 5%). All this means, though, is that theoretical and experimental developments for the former are lagging behind those of the latter.

In other words, the story that begins here isn’t finished. That might be frustrating for some readers, but that’s the way scientist is. Sometimes we have to wait generations to push back the frontiers of knowledge significantly. Some useful measures of progress is the time between postulating the positron and its discovery, or the time between postulating the Higgs particle and its discovery. We might be near the end of this dark story, but maybe not. That’s why science is a cultural phenomenon often involving the cooperation of thousands of scientists. Readers of this book can participate indirectly in one aspect of this great adventure.

Some nitpicks: There are a few silly figures (Fig. 9.5, for example) that have very little pedagogical value (and might cause more confusion than understanding) and some complicated graphs that need a bit more explanation (the color versions will help the frustrated reader). The author writes well but is overly repetitive at times. There’s also a wee bit too much hero worship—scientists are first and foremost human beings, generally yearning for the same basic things most people yearn for; they might be smart, funny, and/or weird, but no one on this planet deserves to be worshipped. Finally, the book’s list price at $29.95 is a bit upsetting. I know Princeton U. Press is a respected one in the academic community trying to cash in on the justly deserved fame of its associated university, but modern day readers will probably wait for the paperback or ebook. What happened to science for the masses?

All that said, this book is a good one to have on your science shelf—if you still have room for print books, of course. I’ll put it right after my quantum field theory and gravitation textbooks (who was that guy who read those?) and Brian Greene’s books—and leave room for the sequel about how they discover what dark matter and energy really are. I can’t wait.

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