Science Book a Day Interviews Richard Panek


Special thanks to Richard Panek for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – The 4 Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality

Richard Panek is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the New York Foundation for the Arts, as well as a grant from the Antarctic Artists and Writers program of the National Science Foundation. – From Barnard University’s Profile

Richard’s Twitter:

#1 – What was the impetus for The 4% Universe?

I was at a dark matter cosmology symposium back in the early 2000s, but mostly what scientists were talking about was the then-new idea of dark energy–the evidence for the acceleration in the expansion of the universe. I remember thinking, If these people are right, then 96 percent of the universe exists in a form that is inaccessible to us–and everything we’ve always considered to be astronomy needs to be rethought. I love when science overturns our unthinking assumptions.

#2 – How does the finding of Dark Energy and Dark Matter change the way we look at the universe?

They both determine the large-scale structure of the universe–on the level of clusters and superclusters of galaxies. If they didn’t exist in the precise quantities that they do, the universe as we know it wouldn’t be here (or anywhere at all), and neither would we.

#3 – The story in you tell in your books involves characters and events spanning decades. How did you go about doing your research for this book?

Lots of interviews. Lots of conferences. Lots of research in scientific journals and books.

#4 – Your book gives a fascinating insight into the realities of research. Lack of resources, conferencing, competing for limited funds and fleeting glory. Was it important to you to portray the realities of scientists and their relationships?

Absolutely. As someone who doesn’t have a background in science, I find that I have to educate myself from scratch, so I definitely empathize with a non-specialist readership. One way I can get them invested in the science is to put both of us in the point of view of the scientists. And because scientists are human, we get to witness blind alleys and brilliant insights, individual jealousies and collaborative triumphs. We sometimes think of science as this high-minded pursuit of immutable truths, and maybe sometimes it is. But it’s usually a lot more complicated than that, because life is complicated, and I hope that by witnessing science on that level, readers can better appreciate what science is and how it actually works.

#5 – Are you working on any new books/projects you can tell us about?

Yes and no–yes, working on a new book, and no, I’d prefer not to discuss. But thanks for asking!

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