Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Conversation with Richard Panek

Richard Panek
photo: Deborah Copaken Kogen

Richard Panek's new book, The 4% Universe, offers a glimpse into a world where everything that we know and understand only makes up four-percent of the whole. He spoke with Megan Kurashige about this "ultimate Copernican revolution" and the importance of making scientific knowledge accessible to everyone.

**Richard Panek will be visiting Kepler's on Thursday, January 27th, at 7:00 PM. For more information, please follow this link.**

MK: Your new book, The 4% Universe, documents the scientific hunt for the stuff, un-seeable and possibly unknowable, that makes up the majority of our universe. Why and how did this subject capture your attention and imagination?

The 4% Universe

RP: The idea that what we've always thought of as the universe in its entirety is only 4 percent of what's actually out there is absolutely wild. When I first started hearing about this idea at astronomy conferences, I figured there must be a catch. But there isn't! We don't know what 96 percent of the universe is. The more I investigated, the more I realized that scientists were reaching this consensus, despite their best efforts to convince themselves otherwise.

The idea is so startling that I suspect most people would have an initial response similar to my own. Even the scientists who made the key discoveries had the same reaction. But over the past decade, the evidence has become overwhelming; the "dark universe" is now scientific orthodoxy. The impulse to write this book grew out of my overwhelming desire to spread the news: "You're not going to believe this-but it's true!"

MK: Can you explain the "ultimate Copernican revolution"? How does the potentially massive shift in the way we view the universe impact our ideas about ourselves?

RP: The Copernican revolution refers to the idea that the Earth is not at the center of the universe. Starting in 1609, Galileo used a primitive telescope to validate this hypothesis. Since then, we've discovered that not only is the Earth just one more planet orbiting the Sun, but the Sun is just one of 100 billion stars orbiting the center of the Milky Way, and the Milky Way is just one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe. In recent years, astronomers have discovered that a mysterious substance they call dark matter makes up 23 percent of the universe, and that an even more mysterious dark energy makes up 73 percent of the universe. Which leaves only 4 percent for the familiar protons and neutrons that make up you, me, Kepler's Books, the Earth, the Sun, and all the planets and stars.

We can safely say that the implications of this discovery will be profound. Galileo's observations changed physics and philosophy in ways nobody could have anticipated. With The 4 Percent Universe, I didn't just want to reconstruct the day-to-day details leading up to pivotal discoveries, though they were a pretty thrilling ride in themselves. I wanted to put the dark universe into a broad historical and philosophical perspective. The fun is just beginning.

MK: You write about the rivalry between different scientists and scientific organizations. How does this rivalry (and the personalities that fuel it) shape our understanding of the world we live in?

RP: In the 1990s two independent teams of astronomers and physicists were racing each other to find the answer to an eternal riddle: How will the universe end? They already knew that all matter attracts all other matter through gravitation and that the universe is expanding from a Big Bang. Does the universe contain so much matter that the expansion will eventually stretch as far as it can, stop, and reverse itself, like a tossed ball returning to Earth? Does it contain so little that the expansion will never stop, but just go on and on, like a rocket leaving Earth's atmosphere? Or does it contain just enough to result in what astronomers call a "Goldilocks universe"-one that has not too much and not too little, but just the right amount to slow expansion to an eternal standstill?

What the two teams discovered was that the expansion isn't slowing down at all. Instead, it's speeding up. Some other force is overpowering the effects of gravity-as if the tossed ball is not only rising in the air but going faster and faster. They call this mystery force "dark energy." If only one team had found that result, the scientific community could have easily dismissed it. But the two teams worked independently, using different methods and different data. They actively distrusted each other and resented each other's very existence. Yet both reached the same improbable conclusion. Their peers had to take the result seriously. The rivalry that motivated the two teams, often to the point of exasperation, actually turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to them.

MK: How did you get started writing about science?

RP: I have no background in science. In fact, I never liked the subject in school. My background is in journalism and fiction. So when an editor approached me in 1996 about writing a book on the history of the telescope, I passed. I explained that the idea of devoting years and years to researching and writing a 700-page, 500-footnote book about a piece of technology sounded like death. She said, "Think of it as an essay."

I started looking into the subject and soon realized that the history of the telescope traces the history of modern science-and our understanding of the universe and our place in it. Writing about science is like going back to college (but without the student loans), only now I hope I'm mature enough to appreciate the education. Since agreeing to write that book (Seeing and Believing: How the Telescope Opened Our Eyes and Minds to the Heavens), I have written primarily, though not exclusively, about science. By combining the just-the-facts methods of journalism with the narrative momentum of fiction, I try to explain the history and philosophy of science to readers who, like myself before I began writing about science, might know little or nothing about the subject.

MK: Recently, there have been so many great books that make science accessible to the general public. Why is it important to encourage the access to and curiosity about science for people who are not necessarily serious scientists?

RP: I once asked a prominent scientist-a probable future Nobelist-this question. His answer: "It's good for democracy."

Before the Scientific Revolution, the responsibility for understanding the workings of nature resided with distant rulers and remote deities. But the scientific method allows you to see the evidence for yourself, and seeing for yourself means thinking for yourself. Each individual becomes the ultimate authority-along with each of the numerous other individuals who then repeat observations and validate discoveries. The power that comes from knowledge became the power of the masses.

But in order for the democratization of knowledge to work, you have to accept the evidence for what it is. During this past decade we've seen what happens when there's widespread confusion between theory and wishful thinking. You get things like Intelligent Design and denial of the science behind global warming. The truth isn't always pleasant. I think if you had asked most astronomers fifteen years ago whether they wanted the universe to be 96 percent unknown and possibly unknowable, they would have said, No! But they have to accept the universe on its terms, not theirs, and this human limitation has become a source of intellectual liberation.

I often think of something I once heard a theorist say: "If you could put the timeline of the history of science before me and I could choose any time and field, this is where I'd want to be." This sensibility is what accessible science books offer a non-specialist readership. Welcome the unknown, no matter what. See possibilities in the seemingly impossible. Understand our relationship to everything that is not us-a category that now encompasses 96 percent of the universe. To me, that's democracy in action.

Richard Panek is the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship and the author of The Invisible Century and Seeing and Believing. He has frequently written for the New York Times-where The 4-Percent Universe began as an article-as well as Discover, Smithsonian, Esquire, and Outside, among other publications. Visit him on Facebook.

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