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Q and A with Author Richard Panek

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In recent years, a radically new vision of the universe has emerged: only 4 percent of it consists of the matter that makes up humans, the Museum, and every planet, star, and galaxy. The remaining 96 remains a mystery.

On December 5, at 7:30 pm, award-winning author Richard Panek will delve into the engaging scientific history of “dark matter” and “dark energy” recounted in his book The 4% Universe. As part of his discussion, Panek will explain the very human story behind this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, awarded for the discovery of evidence for dark energy—that the expansion of the universe is speeding up. He recently answered a few questions about this hot topic in physics.

Your book, The 4% Universe, discusses dark energy as well as dark matter. What’s the difference?

Dark matter is a form of matter that we can’t see, though we can infer its existence by studying its gravitational influence on matter we can see—which is what astronomers have repeatedly done since the 1970s. Dark energy is something even more mysterious that is somehow counteracting gravity on a cosmic scale and speeding up the expansion of the universe. The 1998 discovery of that effect is what earned the leaders of two teams of astronomers the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Some hail these discoveries as being as important as Einstein’s or Galileo’s. How do you think the discovery of dark matter and dark energy will shape science in years to come?

In my book, I make the direct comparison between these discoveries and Galileo’s various observations that forced us to reconceive the universe according to the Copernican system. Thanks to the discoveries of dark matter and dark energy, we know that not only do we not occupy a privileged position in the universe, but we’re not even the stuff of the vast majority of the universe! For dark matter, scientists at least have some candidates—hypothetical particles called axions and neutralinos. To explain dark energy, however, physicists suspect that they’re going to need to yoke quantum mechanics to general relativity, a holy grail that so far has eluded the best minds in the business, including Einstein’s.

Several of your book’s subjects are the recipients of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics. Do you think these scientists were at first aware of how groundbreaking their discoveries were?

I’ve gotten to know these three scientists along with many of their collaborators fairly well over the years, and I think I can safely say that right from the start the members of the two discovery teams knew they had found something revolutionary. Remember, they had set out to discover how much the expansion of the universe is slowing down. So when they found themselves getting the opposite result—that the expansion is speeding up under the influence of something that is overpowering gravity—they were stunned. Scientists always want to catch the universe doing something weird, and these folks caught it doing the weirdest thing of all. In fact, as I recount in my book, each team’s suspicion that the other team was getting the same counterintuitive result is part of what gave them both the nerve to go public with their discovery.

Click here to buy tickets to Richard Panek’s talk and book signing.

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