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The Extravagant Universe: Exploding Stars, Dark Energy, and the Accelerating Cosmos (Princeton Science Library)
Robert P. Kirshner
Princeton University Press, 2004
304 pp., $35.00
Faster Than the Speed of Light: The Story of a Scientific Speculation
Perseus Publishing, 2003
288 pp., $26.00
by Catherine H. Crouch
The Curious Case of the Exploding Universe
How do scientists take abstract research findings that require well over a decade of training to understand and turn them into appealing books for a wider audience? A gift for vivid explanation is required, but to keep the average nonspecialist turning the pages, authors must also tell engaging stories. In principle, these stories might take shape within any number of genres, but in practice by far the most common is mystery: the quest for a solution to a puzzle, a quest that draws out and develops the character of the investigators, witnesses, and suspects. The author's task is to make the puzzle and its solution exciting, while also making the surrounding human drama compelling.
Two recent books, both dealing with questions of cosmic significance, start with first-rate scientific material and spin it into stories that reveal much about the human drama behind the scientific process. In The Extravagant Universe, Robert P. Kirshner tells the story of the discovery that the universe consists not only of the matter and energy that we can perceive through our senses and scientific instruments, but also of a mysterious "dark energy" and "dark matter" that we cannot currently observe. As Kirshner writes, "The universe we see is controlled by the universe we do not see: dark matter that is not like the neutrons and protons that make up our bodies, and an enigmatic dark energy that shows itself in the runaway expansion of the universe."
In Faster than the Speed of Light, Joao Magueijo describes his efforts to answer some of the unresolved questions posed by Big Bang cosmology, the idea that the universe began in a primordial explosion from a single point. Although Big Bang cosmology is now well established, it does not explain exactly how that explosion played out in the opening seconds, before the earliest time that can be directly observed by astronomers. The core of Magueijo's idea is that the speed of light may have been faster in the early universe than it is now, thereby ...