Monday, 2 August 2010

The Edge of Reason

Extreme Physics, Extreme Pilgrim

The Edge of Reason: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Cosmology

Tehelka, 17 July 2010

Anatole France said that wandering reestablishes the original harmony that once existed between man and the universe — a particularly apt aim for a traveller trying to explain cosmology.

Anil Ananthaswamy’s The Edge of Reason is an elegant, genre-defying book that’s part travelogue, part popular science. It has come from his journeys to some of the most remarkable and delicate scientific experiments in the world. In Siberia, Ananthaswamy, the consulting editor at the popular science magazine, New Scientist, visited Lake Baikal Neutrino Telescope, which uses the world’s largest freshwater lake to detect neutrinos — ghostlike particles that pass through matter easier than a knife through butter, carrying information about the furthest reaches of the cosmos. At the Large Hadron Collider, the underground scientific cathedral near Geneva, he writes of how physicists are smashing protons into each other at energies replicating the early universe — hoping that the debris will reveal a telltale sign of ‘the God particle’ — the Higgs boson, physics’ answer to why there’s mass in the universe. At the South Pole he was stunned with “the sheer audacity of the IceCube telescope — searching for outer space neutrinos smashing into a cubic kilometre of clear Antarctic Ice”. But even extreme physics took on new meaning, admits Ananthaswamy, when he spent a surreal month in Antarctica. “Nothing in your experience prepares you for a continent of ice where there’s neither vegetation nor trees.”

In person, the London-based writer, 46, is soft- spoken and bespectacled. Born in the small town of Bhilai, Chhattisgarh, Ananthaswamy studied engineering at IIT Madras and did a Master’s in the US. He returned to India to work for a software company that soon shipped him to Silicon Valley. Though the money was great during his 12 years there, life was “emotionally unsatisfying”. He decided to pursue a long-held desire to write. He threw up the high-paying job and eventually headed to London for a much sought-after post at the New Scientist.

Two years later, he embarked on his travels to seek the unsung heroes of science and found himself in desolate deserts, derelict mines, standing on mountaintops and even at the bottom of the world. “It’s not enough to point telescopes from local mountains or conduct lab experiments to understand dark matter and dark energy,” he says of these sites, “There’s something that links all these places — they strip off the unnecessary and leave only the essence to ponder.”

At a Christian monastery near California’s Mount Wilson Observatory, he sensed how similar the monks were to cosmologists. “If solitude and silence engender creativity,” he muses, “then it behoves us to protect not just our own solitude but of nature’s as a whole. If we pollute pristine places like Lake Baikal, we’ll deny ourselves any chance of deciphering our own beginnings.” His book is an eloquent description of a scientific pilgrim’s search for this solitary understanding.

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