Book: The Four Percent Universe

Chad Orzel at Uncertain Principles reviews Richard Panek’s The Four Percent Universe. The subtitle is Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality.

It’s not a book about the known facts regarding the nature of the universe so much as a book about the process by which those facts were determined and became accepted.

Here’s a snippet from an interview with Panek on Amazon:

Q: Well, then, what do astronomers mean by “dark matter”?

Panek: A mysterious substance that comprises about 23 percent of the universe.

Q: And dark energy?

Panek: Something even more mysterious that comprises about 73 percent of the universe.

Q: Okay, 73 and 23 add up to 96 percent, which does leave a four percent universe. But if we don’t know what dark matter and dark energy are, how do we even know they’re there?

Panek: In the 1970s, astronomers observed that the motions of galaxies, including our own Milky Way, seem to be violating the universal law of gravitation. They’re spinning way too fast to survive more than a single rotation, yet we know that our galaxy has gone through dozens of rotations in its billions of years of life. Galaxies are living fast but not dying young—a fact that makes sense only if we say that there’s more matter out there, gravitationally holding galaxies and even clusters of galaxies together, than we can see. Astronomers call this substance dark matter.

Q: And the mysterious dark energy?

Panek: In the 1990s, two independent teams of astronomers set out to discover the fate of the universe. They knew the universe was born in a big bang and has been expanding ever since. Now they wanted to know how much the mutual gravitation among all this matter—dark or otherwise—was affecting the expansion of the universe. Enough to slow it down so that the universe would eventually grind to a halt, then collapse on itself? Or just enough that the expansion would grind to a halt and stay there? In 1998 the two teams came to the same conclusion: the expansion of the universe isn’t slowing down at all. In fact, it’s speeding up. And whatever force is counteracting gravity is what they call dark energy.

Babies speak “dog”!

That was too cute a title to give up. At a surprisingly young age, human babies are aware of their surroundings and the emotions around them. They can even tell when a dog is being friendly or aggressive. That’s a good trait considering that we’ve lived with dogs for at least ten thousand years.

Evolution 2012 in Ottawa, Ontario

Check out the reaction and link fest at Jeremy Voder’s Denim and Tweed: Evol2012.

All in all, I had a great time, and saw a lot of really cool science. This was the first Evolution meeting I’ve been to where I was never at a loose end—every moment I was in the Convention Centre, I had someone to go see, or a talk to go hear. And, honestly, I finished the meeting without having checked in with everyone I’d have liked to.

Anatomy of The Hulk

I recognize those teeth!

Biological artist Glendon Mellow’s work is featured in this lesson on The Hulk’s internal anatomy.

Visit the lesson for a transcription of the informative captions.

Freedom from Religion Foundation

Here are some highlights of the FFRF’s year 2011, including some examples of virtual billboards the Out of the Closet campaign:

“Man” vs “human”

book, Words and Women by Casey Miller and Kate Swift

Words & Women


The meanings, or implications of “boy,” “girl,” and “man” have shifted over the last several hundred years. “Man” used to mean human; so you’d see a sentence like, “There were two men of London: a woman and her son.”* But it came more and more to mean males only, so that “fisherman,” which might once have been as generic as “farmer” or “pioneer,” now brings to mind only males. The whole mankind = man = men way of writing encourages us to think only of males. So we get blinkered communications such as, “The pioneers went west with their possessions, wives, and children” because the writer thinks of pioneers as men and forgets that women and children were pioneers, too. We have to include women again if we want girls to grow up using the full scope of their abilities.

*Source, Words and Women by Casey Miller and Kate Swift

See also A Handbook of Non-sexist Writing and its reviews.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle described Ercongota, daughter of a seventh-century English king, as “a wonderful man.” No, she didn’t have a sex change. In her day, “man” was a true generic term meaning “person” or “human being.” Many older English writings do indeed use “man” in this sense. But, as this book explains, our language has changed, and this generic usage is no longer appropriate.

I grew up on “man = humankind” rhetoric so I can adjust to it but I now notice that it’s exclusionary.

Reason Rally scenes with audio from Dawkins

March 23, 2012

This video shows typical scenes from the Reason Rally in Washington DC on March 24. The audio track is excerpts from Richard Dawkins’ speech to the rally.

Currently reading: Outliers

Malbook cover, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwellcolm Gladwell’s Outliers is a book that makes me think. Using statistics from demographics, education, sport, and individual biographies, he shows that a minor advantage caused by happenstance can translate into an insurmountable advantage years later. The happenstance is often being just a bit older when training or education starts. That accrues extra help and practice time and the snowball is rolling. At the end of the process, a sport or vocation is missing half its potential because half the population was filtered out at the start by happenstance.

Gladwell also maintains that expertise comes from practice and a lot of the difference in outcomes is derived from differential opportunity to amass the 10,000 hours of practising needed. He cites musicians in general, the Beatles, and Steve Jobs. He points out that most American self-made millionaires were born in a span of only nine years, 1831 – 1840, and that today’s most successful computer startup firms had founders with an even narrower range, 1953 – 1956. If you were older, you were settled into a different career and if you were younger, it was too late.

Another point he made was that there’s some level that’s good enough, after which more intelligence makes no difference to professional outcomes.

I’m only half-way through the book. Perhaps he’s cherry-picking his examples but it is thought-provoking.

  • Book review on Google
  • Discussion on Gladwell’s website. “In the case of Outliers, the book grew out a frustration I found myself having with the way we explain the careers of really successful people. You know how you hear someone say of Bill Gates or some rock star or some other outlier—”they’re really smart,” or “they’re really ambitious?’ Well, I know lots of people who are really smart and really ambitious, and they aren’t worth 60 billion dollars. It struck me that our understanding of success was really crude—and there was an opportunity to dig down and come up with a better set of explanations.”
  • Review on Goodreads
  • Wikipedia article
  • Book on Amazon.com
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