The Unknown Universe: A New Exploration of Time, Space, and Modern Cosmology, by Stuart Clark, PhD

I felt pretty smart a few years ago after reading Richard Panek’s book The Four Percent Universe. That book was a report on the latest breakthroughs in cosmology. After careful measurements of the speed at which the universe is expanding it was determined that the forces involved required more mass in the universe than we could account for. Specifically, we (meaning scientists and I gratuitously add the royal “we”) could only measure 4% of the star stuff that would be driving that expansion. The remaining 96% must be something we can’t see all lumped into the description of dark matter and dark energy.

Now it’s six years later and Stuart Clark, who reports on science for The Guardian, says that this may be a matter of bad math, specifically that we’re using the universal constant (that was a tweak to begin with) and we’re more faced with a dilemma of needing better calculations than trying to find things we can’t see. Within a few years, according to one scientist, no one will be talking about dark matter.

This is a personal disappointment in having a tidbit of knowledge swept away that both drove women to the other end of a crowded bar and bored my grandchildren to tears.

There is much more to the book than this one fact, though it is held out as bait to draw the reader to the last chapter. Like many other popular science books on the subject the author is apparently required by law to retell the history of physics, so we are reintroduced to Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Halley, Farraday, and dozens of others as a way of telling how we arrived where we are today. Even though I read a book like this once or twice a year the stories are enjoyable and rereading them helps cement ideas in my admittedly non-physicist brain. Some of the stories were new to me as well and the world of physics geniuses can be pretty bizarre and entertaining.

Almost every chapter introduces a new topic, with things ranging from gravitational waves to string theory to the ultimate end of the universe, due much later than you or I need to worry about it. Clark is used to writing for a general audience so while the concepts can be complex and challenging one never feels lost or in deep water … or space if you want to keep the metaphors clean. Having to unlearn things regularly is the price we pay for science progress. This book will have absolutely no impact on my life other than satisfying the childhood urge to ask “why” and hope for answers, whether looking at a butterfly or the Milky Way. A book like this once in awhile is the grownup version of asking a parent “why”. If you try to keep that sense of curiosity alive in your own heart this is a worthwhile book.