Stuart Clark is no newbie in the world of cosmology or science writing. Not only is he a widely read astronomy journalist with a PhD in astrophysics, but he’s also a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and cosmology consultant for new scientist. So when this author of previous books such as The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth and The Sun Kings tosses out the current work under review—The Unknown Universe—one immediately thinks it’s got to be about the greatest granddaddy of our universe’s sum total of unknowns: dark matter.
Because until about a decade-and-a-half back when astronomers and cosmologists looked up at the night sky they had it pretty much figured. Unfortunately, with the discovery of dark matter and dark energy all that changed. We suddenly found to our horror that the kind of matter all things—including the gazillion planets, stars and galaxies and, of course, us and the rest of life—were made of, constituted only a measly 5 per cent of everything in existence. The rest of the 95 per cent was made of something called dark matter and dark energy.
And if that wasn’t humbling enough, we also found that there was very little chance we could even begin to learn what this dark thingy was, since it didn’t seem to interact at all with our kind of “normal” matter/energy. To put it in perspective, if the Copernican revolution removed the entirety of our world from centrestage to the fringes of a much vaster assembly of the whole heavenly ensemble, this shocker showed that not only were we a miniscule component, we were not even made of the same stuff as the rest of everything. We were utterly inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. In fact it would be no exaggeration to say that dark matter has probably been the damnedest dumbing-down event for humanity in the entire history of cosmology. Or as Clark himself puts it: “Either dark matter and dark energy are real and these vast reservoirs of energy are just waiting to be found, or we have to radically rethink fundamental physics.”
But wait. Although he does deal with the abovementioned unknown, he has yet another agenda which presents the human dimension when dealing with the unknown universe since the rise of science through a time continuum. Beginning with Edmund Halley’s prediction about the return of an eponymous comet and Isaac Newton’s three great gravitational theories he deftly walks us through 10 riveting chapters ranging from Earth, Sun, solar system, galaxy, superclusters of galaxies to singularities, multiverses, relativity, quantum theory, space-time, the anthropic principle and, of course, the Big Bang. And get this, even while expounding on the latest cutting edge science along with its myriad mysteries including esoteric interpretations and arcane technologies, nowhere is there a hint of math anywhere or any facts, figures or formulae. Like, how cool is that! Meaning, most lay readers with a brush of high school science (but, yes, with dollops of curiosity) would have absolutely no trouble navigating the 250-odd pages here. Especially, since the chapters are liberally peppered with fascinating anecdotes and asides about people and places involved.
Having said that, however, here’s a caveat. Be prepared to take sides when the author talks about climate change. Clark is of the opinion that blaming only human activity for causing global warming may be a bit too glib since he feels that the Sun’s role in it as in sunspot activity cycles are also a major factor. And beware, he appears to have a lot of data that seem to back him!