Tag Archives: It’s complicated

Book recommendation

“It’s complicated”.  No this isn’t about the movie with Meryl Streep but the response I got from several Harvard PhD physicists five years ago at Graduate Alumni Day in April 2014.  A month earlier the BICEP2 experiment claimed to have seen B-mode polarization in the cosmic background radiation, which would have been observational proof of cosmic inflation.  Nobel prize material for sure.  Unfortunately the signal turned out to be from dust in our galaxy, the milky way

You can read all about it in “Losing the Nobel Prize” by Brian Keating, who developed the instrumentation for BICEP2.  I recommend the book for several reasons.  The main reason is the discussion of cosmology and its various theories starting with Galileo (p. 28) getting up to  the B-Modes that BICEPs thought it saw by p. 138.  The discussion is incredibly clear, with discussions (to name a few) of how Galileo knew Ptolemy was wrong (the way the moons of Jupiter moved around it in time), refracting vs.reflecting telescopes, Hubble and cepheid variables, Vera Rubin and why she didn’t get a Nobel — she died too soon, how polaroid glasses work, and why bouncing of water is enough to polarize unpolarized light.  Want more? Fred Hoyle and steady state cosmology, the problems with the big bang (smoothness problem, horizon problem, flatness problem) solved by Alan Guth and inflation, false vacuum, and finally what B-modes actually are.

If you’ve a typical reader of blogs scientific but not a pro in physics, astronomy, cosmology, you’ve probably heard all these terms. Keating explains them clearly.

Even better, he writes well and is funny.  Here is the opening paragraph of the book.

“Each year, on December tenth, thousands of worshippers convene in Scandinavia to commemorate the passing of an arms dealer known as the merchant of death.  The eschatological ritual features all the rites and incantations befitting a pharaoh’s funeral.  Haunting dirges play as the worshippers, bedecked in mandatory regalia, mourn the merchant.  He is eerily present; his visage looms over the congregants as they feast on exotic game, surrounded by fresh-cut flowers imported from the merchant’s mausoleum.  The event culminates with the presentation of gilded, graven images bearing his likeness.”

Anything dealing with the creation of the universe has theological overtones, and we can regard the book as a history of various scientific creation myths, the difference being that they are abandoned when evidence is found which contradicts them.  Georges’ Lemaitre, a catholic priest and relativist puts in more than an appearance (p. 56) as he predicted what is probably the first big bang theory — the primeval atom with its subsequent expansion.

The book isn’t all science, and the author whose Jewish father abandoned them was raised by a catholic step-father describes being an altar boy for a time.   Then there are adventure stories of journeys to the south pole for the BICEP experiment.

There’s a lot more in the book, which is definitely worth a read.

Finally a few personal notes.  The man who brought BICEP2 down to earth David Spergel appears.  He’s a good guy.  At my 50th reunion there my wife and I  were standing in our reunion suits outside our hotel across route 1 waiting for a bus to take us across.  Some guy (Spergel) sees us an offers a ride to campus. On the ride over I asked what he did, and he says astronomy and physics.  So I asked how come the universe is said to be homogenous when all we see is clumpy galaxies and stars — you asked the right guy saith Spergel, and he launches into an explanation (which I’ve forgotten).  I mention that Jim Hartle is a class member.  “He’s very smart” saith David.  Later I tell Hartle the same story.  “He’s very smart” saith Jim.

Another good person is Meryl Streep.  A cousin is in movies both acting in the past and now directing and knows her.  Her father was a great admirer, so Meryl took the trouble to hike over to New Jersey and say hello.  She didn’t have to do that.  Unfortunately in the movie mentioned first, Meryl had to play a porn star with her aged scrawny body (probably Harvey Weinstein put her up to it).  I couldn’t stand it and walked out at that point.

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