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.

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

Amazon’s $23-million book

When I see an ordinary book advertised for thousands of dollars, I assume it’s some kind of data error. It never occurred to me that it could be a result of runaway competitive pricing algorithms. But take a look….

Nomenclature Rule

In Life: An Unauthorized Biography, Richard Fortey documented a biologists’ rule:

The most primitive of  bacteria are known by the most wondrous jargon, mastery of which is guaranteed to cause jaws to drop at social functions, for the correct designation of many of them is ‘chemolithoautotrophic hyperthermophiles.’ Since these bacteria are only a thousandth of a millimetre long — minute rods, discs, or cocci (spheres), this affords an example of a rule well known to biologists: that the length of the description is inversely proportional to the size of the organism.

No doubt Fortey is an accomplished raconteur, but I find his written work almost unbearably wordy and have to take it in small doses.

“The Crusades through Arab Eyes”

Steve Smith says:
[I recommend] “The Crusades Through Arab Eyes” by Amin Maalouf. This is religious, political, and strategic history as it should be written. It’s a pithy and honest history of a subject that continues to highly relevant. And it can be read in its original French or the very good English translation. It also quotes this gem from 10th c. “Muslim” poet al-Ma’arri:

The inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts: Those with brains, but no religion, And those with religion but no brains.

Little has changed over a thousand years.

Adventures in Science

orange book cover with picture of Galapagos TortoiseSean B. Carroll’s book Remarkable Creatures is about major discoveries in evolution. He glides over a few details, but it’s very readable. I’d like to see each chapter done as a book about the Exciting History of Science for young people. I’m learning things I never knew: that Charles Doolittle Walcott, in addition to discovering the Burgess shale with its Cambrian Explosion fauna:

  • surveyed 25,000 vertical feet of geological strata over two seasons,
  • was one of the first 20 employees of the U.S. Geological service
  • found the first Precambrian fossils
  • consulted in the passing of the Antiquities Act to protect significant sites (e.g. Grand Canyon) and the founding of the National Park Service,
  • drafted the bill that created the national forest reserves
  • secured a museum building to house the National Museum, later the Smithsonian
  • was a science adviser to several U.S. presidents
  • raised the money from private donors to have 12,000 specimens from Roosevelt’s African expedition preserved and shipped back to the U.S.
  • discovered hundreds of thousands of fossils during summer field expeditions with his family
  • brought the Wright brothers official recognition for their work
  • and helped to found the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which became NASA

Book: The Historical Evidence for Jesus

Book review:

In this thoroughly researched study, G.A.Wells has squarely faced the question of whether a man named Jesus lived, preached, healed, and died in Palestine during the early years of the first century of the Christian era – or indeed, at any time. Building on the biblical studies of Christian theologians, Dr.Wells soberly demonstrates that we have no reliable eyewitnesses to the events depicted in the New Testament. He publicizes a fact known to theological scholars but little-known in the average Christian congregation: that the order of books of the New Testament is not an accurate chronological arrangement. Indeed, Paul, who never saw Jesus, wrote his epistles to early Christian congregations before the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John were written. It may come as a great surprise to Christians and other monotheists, to agnostics, atheists, and humanists alike, that ‘the earliest references to the historical Jesus are so vague that it is not necessary to hold that he ever existed; the rise of Christianity can, from the undoubtedly historical antecedents, be explained quite well without him; and reasons can be given to show why, from about A.D. 80 or 90, Christians began to suppose that he had lived in Palestine about fifty years earlier’. “The Historical Evidence for Jesus” is not a frontal attack on Christians per se; rather it is an easily understood but scholarly examination of the evidence for many long-accepted notions about the ‘biography’ of the man called Jesus. This book takes up and quotes extensively from the Epistles and the Gospels of the New Testament, thus letting the evidence speak for itself in words familiar to every Bible reader. For example, Wells closely compares what Paul said about Jesus with what the author of Matthew, who lived later, wrote of him. Then he explains why these discrepancies apparently exist. Startling indeed is his proof that ‘earlier writers sometimes make statements which positively exclude the idea that Jesus worked miracles, delivered certain teachings, or suffered under Pilate’. There is also interesting material on the topics of Jesus’ supposed family, the so-called Shroud of Turin, and the myth-making that even today surrounds the figure of Jesus. Dr.Wells does not, however, attempt to demolish belief in God or the ethical precepts held by Christians. His presentation is always fair and couched in moderate tones.

Either George Albert Wells is digging deeper and deeper into the historical evidence (or lack thereof) and its implications, or he’s writing up the same material for different audiences.

Wells, the author o also wrote

There’s a progression of thought here,

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