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This just in: universe still a mystery

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Contrary to its title, this new popular-science book is not an investigative study into the nefarious schemes of unscrupulous physicists.

It is, however, a meandering and rambling discourse covering the development of several areas of physics-related science, including cosmology, astronomy and high-energy particle physics -- and it is told with attitude.

Bankrupting Physics is based on a book originally published in 2010 by renegade German physicist Alexander Unzicker in his native country.

Winnipeg-based science writer Sheilla Jones, author of 2008's The Quantum 10, has joined Unzicker as a co-author for the expanded English edition.

In a straightforward manner (i.e. by making the subject readable for the science layman), Bankrupting Physics provides historical insights into the evolution of science in the last 100 years and gives some nice explanations of how some of the measurements are made.

The areas of physics Unzicker and Jones cover have always attracted great attention, not just from the scientific world, but from the general public.

They ask the questions: Where do we come from? What is the universe? How does it work on a fundamental level? And what is it made of?

Over the last 30 years, technological advances, including space telescopes and powerful particle accelerators, have turned our understanding of the universe on its head. This has led to new and strange concepts, such as dark matter, dark energy, string theory, inflation and the search for the Higgs boson.

Unzicker and Jones deal with these in varying amounts of detail but usually with enough to give an understanding of some of the basics of the field. There are also a great many stories from science lore and a ton of interesting quotes from famous people (mainly scientists).

The book argues science is a little like sausage-making, in that it is not the clean, antiseptic process people often think of.

Experiments are often difficult to do, and it's well known in science errors abound, theories are often twisted to make them fit data and seemingly bizarre theories emerge.

As the title indicates, Unzicker and Jones clearly have an agenda outside of merely describing science. It's just not all that clear what this agenda is.

A large chunk of this book is devoted to the view the majority of theories being looked at today in cosmology, etc., are worthless or worse, and the people pursuing them are wasting their time and our money.

"The problem," they write at one point, "is that dumb brute-force experiments of the standard model create the illusion of scientific progress."

They don't like conventional scientific thinking, particularly the standard model of the universe including inflation, quarks and current models of dark matter and dark energy.

Unzicker and Jones hold particular disdain for string theorists, anything that has hidden dimensions and any theory they believe cannot be tested. One chapter is titled, New Dimensions in Nonsense: Branes, Multiverses and Other Supersicknesses.

"The calm, clear waters in which Einstein loved to sail became a thing of the past," they write in this chapter.

"Instead we have been witness to the bursting dams of reason, ripped and perforated structures, wormholes and other nonmeasureable sci-fi nonsense that has been pouring out of theorists' heads. No one knows what it is supposed to mean but anything goes. Physics has ultimately turned into postmodernism."

Unfortunately, they offer no solutions other than a belief we need to look closer at the physics of low accelerations and get back to the basics. They seem to want us to go back to about 1950 and start again.

In the end, the book leads to the conclusion we are still a long way from completely understanding the universe.

Some of the attacks seem personal. These detract from what otherwise is an entertaining and informative read.


A Winnipegger born and raised, Gregory Kenning is a professor of physics at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 24, 2013 A1

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