Friday, February 08, 2013

Book review "The Edge of Physics" by Anil Ananthaswamy

The Edge of Physics: A Journey to Earth's Extremes to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe
By Anil Ananthaswamy
Mariner Books (January 14, 2011)

In "The Edge of Physics", Ananthaswamy takes the reader on a trip to some of the presently most exciting experiments in physics. The Soudan Mine where physicists are looking for direct detection of dark matter, the Baikal Lake with its underwater neutrino detectors, the Square Kilometre Array in South Africa, the VLT in Chile, the IceCube Neutrino Observatory at the South Pole, and others more before he finishes his travels at CERN in Geneva.

Along this trip one learns a lot not only about the scenery, but also about physics and the history of physics. Ananthaswamy doesn't add the experiments as an afterthought to elaborations on quantum mechanics and special relativity, but the experiments and the people working on them take lead. His theoretical explanations are brief but to the point. The appendix contains the shortest summaries of the Standard Model and the Concordance Model that I've ever seen. He explains enough so the reader can understand which new physics the experiments are looking for and what the relevance is, but always quickly comes back to show how this search proceeds in reality.

I found this book hugely enjoyable because it is not your typical popular science book. I didn't have to make my way through yet another chapter that promises to explain general relativity without equations, and I learned quite some things along the way. It's amazing how many details experimentalists have to think about that would never have occurred to me. Ananthaswamy tells stories of people who found their destiny, stories of courage, stories of trial and error, and some quite dramatic accidents and almost accidents. It's a very well written narrative.

I have only one complaint about this book which is that it would have very much benefited from some illustrations, be that to explain the CMB power spectrum, the generations and families in the Standard Model, the thermal history of the universe, or sketches of the experiments and their parts.

In summary, I can recommend this book to everybody with an interest in contemporary physics or the history of physics. If you have no clue about particle physics or cosmology whatsoever, you might not be able to follow some of the explanations, which are really brief. But even then you'll still take something away from this book. I'd give "The Edge of Physics" 5 out of 5 stars.


  1. Bee:....but the experiments and the people working on them take lead.

    That's an important distinction to me as to where one is headed and where one sets them self up for what's coming next. Where science is.

    I should finish reading what you wrote first though.:)


  2. Okay done.:)

    In a way for me it's about hearing what can begin for anyone as to the question of "high Energy particles" in terms of what was revealed by the Fly eye experiment, as to reveal what is happening in nature...all around us now. You of course question the limits of that energy?:)That was a start eh?:)

    So science then provides us with some platforms with which to see more deeply into nature and what is happening.

    Once you resolve this within self, Anil reveals something very important about the future, and what we choose in terms of what needs to be done as to that choice and directions of future experiments? A method?

    You see it all played out at the LHC and other experiments as well, as to the one's you listed by reference to Anil in his book.

    If one so choose a mantra it would be to say to oneself, so as to be "lead by science?" This sets up a pattern to how one discerns the presentations of experiments, as much so you have revealed of Anil's literary synopsis. That was important in my view as well, and without reading the book I too would have given him five stars:) Of course images are always nice too.


  3. The hardback copy that I borrowed from the library had small pictures in black and white. I however was lucky to attend a talk which was both engaging and included large colour images from his personal collection taken during his trips. In most cases, the scenery alone is stunning, let alone the thought that a large group of people have somehow managed to set up really large/small/delicate/precise experiment there.

  4. Hi Bee,

    Thanks for the review as you have it sound this book to contain all the elements of one I might enjoy. That along with your five star rating, which you award to few books; although I recall you did give one a five tail wag rating :-)

    “A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”

    -John Steinbeck, ”Travels with Charley in Search of America”, Part One, Penguin Books (1980)




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