Extreme physics at the ends of the Earth

NASA balloon.jpg

Image: NASA balloon over Antarctica, NASA

Anil Ananthaswamy, a science journalist and consultant for New Scientist, has been to more of these lonely locations than just about anyone, and in The Edge of Physics he weaves a remarkable narrative that combines fundamental physics with high adventure. The story takes him from the giant telescopes atop the Chilean Andes to a dark-matter detector deep in a defunct Minnesota iron mine, to the neutrino observatory known as IceCube, whose optical sensors have been placed up to 2.5 kilometres below the surface of the perpetually frozen South Pole.

Check out Anil Ananthaswamy’s video of his travels to physics’ most extreme sites

Ananthaswamy carefully explains the science relevant to each of these sites, dipping into history where needed to flesh out the background. Ultimately, though, it is the remote, unforgiving locations that anchor the story. “These magnificent telescopes and detectors can work only in the most extreme settings,” he writes. “Their surreal environments are the unsung characters in this unfolding story – venues rarely appreciated and often overlooked.”

The two sites that bookend the story are, perhaps, the most familiar. We begin at the mount Wilson observatory in California, where Edwin Hubble first deduced that the universe is expanding. At the time, mount Wilson was a pristine, dark-sky site from where astronomers could probe the heavens. Today it lies at the edge of Los Angeles’s urban sprawl. The penultimate chapter finds Ananthaswamy at the Large Hadron Collider, built in a tunnel that straddles the France-Switzerland border. The LHC has received enough press in the past few years for it to have become practically a household name; even so, as the author reminds us, it is the largest single science experiment ever devised by our species, and if we are lucky it may tell us if the universe is made of tiny strings or contains hidden dimensions.


Image: Very Large Telescope in Chile, ESO/G.Hüdepohl

Readers might be less familiar with the Baikal Deep Underwater Neutrino Telescope, which rests in the frigid waters of Lake Baikal in Siberia, looking for meagre flashes of light that tell of collisions between neutrinos and molecules of water. The observatory is run on a shoestring, with only one luxury: the traditional Russian banya, or sauna, where “naked men sit in an outbuilding, chuck water on hot stones to raise steam, and beat each other with leafy twigs and branches of birch”.

The Edge of Physics is really two stories in one: a travelogue that takes the reader to some of the most desolate places on our planet, and a survey of the most urgent problems in physics and cosmology, from dark energy and string theory to multiple universes. Ananthaswamy is a worthy guide for both journeys.

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