Up-to-date and enthusiastic tour of the new cosmology.
After brief glimpses at the Ptolemaic and Copernican universes, science journalist Seife (Zero, 2000) turns to Edwin Hubble's expanding universe, created in the Big Bang roughly 12 billion years ago. When the 1965 discovery of the cosmic microwave background confirmed the Big Bang theory, many astronomers and physicists were convinced that only a few issues remained unsolved before they could close the book on cosmological questions. But in the ’90s, observational results from such improved instruments as the Hubble Space Telescope overturned the theoretical apple cart. In 1997, a study of distant supernovas indicated that the universe's expansion was speeding up. What causes the acceleration remains a mystery, currently explained in terms of “dark energy”—dark because it is so far undetectable except in its effect on cosmic expansion. One possible explanation lies in the energy of the quantum vacuum, which instead of being empty is actually a seething mass of virtual particles and forces. On another front, gravitational measurements indicate that much of the matter in the universe remains undetected and that the vast majority of it is made up of completely unknown components. The supersymmetry theory of physics explains this by proposing that each of the standard particles (electron, quark, etc.) is matched by a much heavier partner; but until someone actually detects these particles, the question remains unanswered. Seife presents simple, non-mathematical summaries of critical experiments and observations, including attempts to detect gravity waves and the polarization of cosmic background radiation, and the sometimes wild-seeming theories that arise from them. Which new version of the universe turns out to be “real” remains to be seen.
A good summary for the lay reader.