PANEK HAS CREATED a new genre with The 4% Universe: the pop-science–reportage–biography–thriller. The mystery: what’s the universe made of, beyond the 4% of matter that’s known? The cast: a century of theorists, astronomers and physicists, all converging on the target with gathering speed.
It’s a story that starts with Einstein and Hubble and ends in 2010 with the mystery still unsolved, taking in an almost 007-worthy sequence of exotic locales, from American lecture theatres to Antarctic bases and low-Earth orbit.
Panek neatly captures both the glorious big picture of cosmology and the very human stories of the people involved. Aside from being a great primer on the state of cosmology today, it’s also a valuable reminder of how powerfully such mundane things as departmental rivalries, personal friendships and funding disputes have effectively shaped science in the 20th and 21st centuries.
For a newcomer this is a fascinating read, while those familiar with the field will be engaged by the stories of the people involved… and the way the search for dark matter and energy has forced the formerly unconnected worlds of astronomy and particle physics to converge on exploring the greatest mystery of the universe: what it actually is.