The Edge of Physics

Anil Ananthaswamy journeyed to Earth’s extremes to bring the world “The Edge of Physics.”

The Edge of Physics

Launch of the balloon-borne superconducting spectrometer (BESS), McMurdo, Antarctica, December 2007.

Anil Ananthaswamy traveled to the ends of the earth to bring the world “The Edge of Physics,” a unique new book that juxtaposes extreme science and extreme travel/adventure. Taking readers from the depths of the Earth’s crust to the heights of mountaintop observatories, from the ice of Siberia and Antarctica to the deserts of Chile and South Africa, Ananthaswamy combines conceptual physics with descriptions of scientists working in remote and awe-inspiring locations. His is an ambitious effort to explain the next generation of experiments in cosmology and particle physics, and at the same time “engender feeling about the amazing scientific journey we’re on,” says the author.

While Ananthaswamy—a consulting editor at New Scientist in London—focuses heavily on the science, “The Edge of Physics” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) reads like a travel-adventure story or a work of fiction. Maybe that’s because it was written in the wake of a stalled attempt at a novel, or maybe it’s because the far-flung places he visited have an otherworldly quality familiar only to the select few who have experienced them. Either way, the experiments he highlights have potentially profound implications, as they promise to confirm theories that experimenters have thus far failed to verify, and in the process “drag physics out of its theoretical morass,” as Ananthaswamy puts it.

Last week, Failure interviewed Ananthaswamy about the state of physics, his travels, and the challenges of arranging what might be described as a physicist’s dream trip around the world.

What inspired “The Edge of Physics”?
I had been working on a novel set in the mountains of India that had physics and cosmology at its heart. But it was going nowhere. Meanwhile, I kept thinking of travelling to see telescopes on mountaintops. During a conversation with Saul Perlmutter [a physicist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory] about the state of cosmology, I realized that if I visited not just the summits of mountains but also the bottoms of mines and other remote and extreme environments, I could tell the story of what’s happening in physics, especially cosmology.

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