June 7, 2020

Review: Heart of Darkness by Jeremiah P. Ostriker and Simon Mitton

On sale now!

Cosmology is “where it’s at” in modern astronomy. With advent of observatories such as Planck, COBE and WMAP, the study of the origin, nature and fate of the universe has gone from the prevue of late night philosophers to a mature science backed by hard data.

This week’s review entitled Heart of Darkness by Jeremiah P. Ostriker and Simon Mitton out from Princeton Books traces the implications of modern cosmology and more. The path is a fascinating history from the first debates over cosmic redshift and the Hubble constant through the discovery of the cosmic microwave background by Penzias and Wilson in the 1960s right up to the big questions being raised today.

Where is the universe’s “missing mass?” Will the universe expand forever or are we destined to collide with another multi-dimensional brane one day? Why is the universe not only expanding, but speeding up and accelerating? Is the universe fine-tuned for life, or is life fine-tuned for it? The book addresses these thought provoking questions and more.

It’s also interesting to see the human side of cosmologists as portrayed in the book.  For example, on the breakthrough 1948 paper entitled On the Origin of Chemical Elements, Gamow arranged to have Bethe’s name inserted into the paper so the authors would read Alpher, Bethe, and Gamow or “Alpha, Beta, Gamma.” Gamow, not to be satisfied, also celebrated by presenting the team with a bottle of Cointreau labeled ylem, a noun which means “the primordial substance from which elements are formed.”  Hey, never let it be said that cosmologists don’t have a refined sense of humor…

The book also addresses some of the most mind-bending concepts in modern astrophysics. Like how can the physical universe be 90 billion light years across if it’s only been expanding for 13.88 billion years? It’s a paradox to think that there is a local horizon to the observable universe, beyond which we can never receive any information. Also, the speed of light doesn’t constrain inflation and the expansion of the universe itself, just the rate at which data can be transmitted in it!

All thought provoking stuff, for sure. It’s curious that not only did we read Heart of Darkness while we were putting together a high school curriculum lesson plan on cosmology, but also while press releases from the Planck spacecraft were tweaking the cosmological constants.

But we can state that the history, observations and questions raised by Heart of Darkness are as topical the day before the Planck release as the day after. Will new discoveries via CERN or the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which is currently doing astrophysics aboard the International Space Station, date modern cosmology text books? Somehow, I doubt it… And that’s one of the many wonders of science. There’s always a new mystery posed by every newly answered question!

Next week: We take a look at the scientific process with Mario Livio’s new book Brilliant Blunders out this month!



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