'Edge of Reason' is science as a road movie
Anil Ananthaswamy's latest book is a must read despite being on a complex subject.
There are some books that make you fly. This is one of them.
I'm not saying it's easy. The cover is just an observatory on the hilltop, against a blue sky. When I look at it now, it's a calming, classy design. When I picked it up the first time, it looked formal, stand-offish somehow. Like it was for people with a lot of brains, not a poor sod like me.
The Prologue didn't make things any easier. Right in the beginning, without any warning, words like Dark Matter, Supernovae, Antimatter, String theory begin to fly at you. I thought I'd never get through the first eight pages. It's a bit hard keeping up with quantum physics, when you've flunked in normal physics in school.
So yes, this book wasn't a one night stand. More like a careful courtship. I had to read and re-read lines. Go back to earlier chapters for something I'd forgotten. She made me work for my keep - but man was it worth it.
What makes our world what it is? Are there worlds/universes beyond our own? They're questions that men have asked since the beginning of time. They're still asking. Despite the progress science has made, scientists have found that their knowledge can't explain 96% of the existing universe.
They want a simple, elegant theory to explain nature. A mathematical law that accurately predicts how things will behave anywhere, anytime, anyhow. Einstein and his Theory of Relativity quenched some of their thirst. But now they know it's not even a scratch on the enormous body of knowledge still waiting to be found.
They have ideas, theories as they grope blindly for enlightenment. And they're running a host of experiments, to verify those ideas. Those experiments aren't done in cubicles and school labs. They're done in huge installations, hundreds of acres across, thousands of feet above and below sea level, on every continent.
Anil Ananthaswamy, the author, goes to those places. And that's when things start getting sexy. Science as a road movie - woo hoo! Imagine launching weather balloons over Antartica, working on monstrous telescopes in South America, digging up sensors from a frozen lake in Siberia, working in one of the deepest mines in the USA.
Sometimes - to grasp the immensity of those abstract ideas clanging around in scientists heads, one must grapple with the enormous geography their efforts are spread over. By just that one device, Ananthaswamy hooks you - whether or not you're a science buff, you could skim through just for the travelogue.
I've been itching to say this. There's another book that made me feel this way. It wasn't about Physics. It didn't skip across the world. It was about a man and his son who take a motorcycle ride across America. There too, the enormity of the journey jostled me along, as I struggled with the incomprehensible ideas in that man's head. Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance was about more abstract concepts. The Edge of Reason is in a different mould - but it does somehow, exhilarate you.
The other thing I loved is the research. When Ananthaswamy goes to a new place, he tells you its history, how and why it was built, tens of years ago. He starts when the place was a wilderness. The Keck telescopes in Hawaii were built on the lip of Mauna Kea, a dormant Volcano.
The place has been sacred to the natives for centuries. They felt violated by the intrusion of American scientists, but were persuaded, made to understand how their holy mountain could truly bless world science.
Then, there's the scale of engineering Ananthaswamy throws at you. 400 ton telescopes that swivel without the slightest creak. Built to outlast earthquakes 7.75 on the Richter scale. An audio telescope spread across an entire kilometer in South Africa. 300,000 tons of pure rock excavated to build the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva.
The big science, the ginormous facts are always there. But what makes it all palatable are the people. Enormous Russians who quaff vodka and sit naked out in freezing Siberia, a father who tricks his teenage son into taking stellar observations through the night, a white South African who fights against apartheid and perseveres to build Africa's first truly large scientific research project.
There's hundreds of those little things that keep flying out at you, in chapter after chapter. Intriguing, engaging, captivating. They somehow make it easier to understand the science, which begins to make sense only slowly, step by step. I'll probably have to read the book two more times to COMPLETELY understand it. But I don't mind. I'm actually looking forward to it.
There's this verse hidden somewhere on the opening pages that I loved. It's from the Rig Veda, written sometimes around 1500 BC. It somehow sums up the entire book and all the relentless efforts of science, of humanity, to attain perfect knowledge.
But after all, who knows and who can say
Whence it all came and how creation happened
The Gods themselves are later than creation
So who knows truly whence it has arisen?
Whence all creation had its origin
He, whether he fashioned it, or he did not
He who surveys it all from the highest heaven
He knows, or maybe even he does not know
Book: The Edge of Reason; Author: Anil Ananthaswamy; Publisher: Penguin
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