Space Oddities: The Mysterious Anomalies Challenging Our Understanding of the Universe

  • By Harry Cliff
  • Doubleday
  • 288 pp.
  • Reviewed by Paul D. Pearlstein
  • April 19, 2024

This smart, highly technical work may be impenetrable to lay readers.

Space Oddities: The Mysterious Anomalies Challenging Our Understanding of the Universe

Harry Cliff’s Space Oddities offers a challenging physics course on everything in the universe. The author starts with the very smallest subatomic hadrons, neutrons, protons, and the like — the “little ripples” of electrons and the “tiny wobbles” in quark fields — and then moves onto the very biggest bodies in the cosmos. There, we meet the largest visible objects in our rapidly expanding and accelerating universe, including stars, planets, and supernovas (black holes), along with huge expanses of invisible matter and energy.

Cliff is a particle physicist working with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). Though the LHC is located underground in Switzerland and France, Cliff works in the U.K. at the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory. He was also a curator at the Science Museum of London from 2012 to 2018, and he presented a popular 2015 TED Talk (“Have We Reached the End of Physics?”) that has attracted almost 3 million hits.

A gifted presenter, the author writes here about exciting experiments, some involving failures of theories that, if proven valid, could rewrite the physics of the entire universe. (These are the “anomalies” referred to in the book’s subtitle.) Always a teacher, Cliff intertwines his narrative with a refresher on the nomenclature and concepts of basic and quantum physics and cosmology. Among other things, he covers Newtonian gravity, Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity, the Higgs boson, quarks, dark matter and dark energy muons, fundamental forces, weird neutrinos, cosmic rays, antiparticles, and gamma-ray bursts.

Physicists believe the universe comprises three fields: It’s 68 percent dark energy, 27 percent dark matter, and 5 percent ordinary matter. These fields can be billions of light years away; scientists are trying to understand what they consist of and what their purpose is. Thus far, they’ve determined dark energy is a repulsive force that accelerates the expansion of our universe, whereas dark matter seems to exist as particles (though its function and activity remain a mystery).

Despite these conclusions, at least 95 percent of the universe is still an enigma. Astronomers are able to study the other 5 percent — the visible matter that includes the sun, stars, moons, planets, etc. Studies involving these celestial bodies start by simply observing, by looking up. For more details, researchers turn to telescopes, observatories, mountaintops, spacecraft, satellites, and images of radio waves. Next, they must experiment in an attempt to validate their theories. A Standard Model of Particle Physics, sometimes called “the theory of everything,” has been developed for the study of subatomic particles. For huge objects, there is the Standard Cosmology Model. Taken together, they allow us to investigate the universe’s smallest and largest parts.

New theories can make huge changes to existing beliefs. Occasionally, a few old theories must be corrected or abandoned. Theorists desperately want their findings to be accepted and proven correct to their peers. Given the drama — and possible fame — surrounding any new discovery, honesty and personal integrity are critical traits in these scientists. To minimize possible error, careful researchers rely on the “five sigma” standard to verify, according to CERN’s website, “the almost certain likelihood that a bump in [an experiment’s] data is caused by a new phenomenon, rather than a statistical fluctuation.” The famed physicist Richard Feynman was quite blunt but correct when he said, “If [a theory] disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong.”

Most of us have been taught that the universe began with the Big Bang, but it’s now argued that something preceded the blinding explosion that sent out matter and energy to combine, expand, accelerate, and continue to move to an apparently undefined endpoint. Despite the absence of solid proof but buttressed by experiment, the respected late physicist Stephen Hawking initially supported the exploding singularity (the consolidation of all matter in one small place) of the Big Bang Theory but later changed his mind and toiled until his death to disprove it.

Many others also believe the theory is incorrect. If they can prove it, a Nobel Prize likely awaits.

Isaac Newton’s law of universal gravitation is itself an anomaly even though Newtonian gravity has been a mainstay of physics for hundreds of years. In 1915, it was revised by Einstein’s theory of general relativity. By introducing time into the equation, Einstein proved that gravity was much more than a force that attracts objects to large masses like Earth. Rather, it is a stretchy field that affects an object depending on its size and the curve of its field. With the invention of new mathematics, calculations can now be made to accurately analyze anything in the universe.

Cliff tells the tale of a research team that cheekily believed it had discovered the first tremors of the Big Bang. The announcement made at the Harvard Center for Astrophysics titillated the media and infected some of our finest scientific minds. Everyone wanted it to be true. But dreams of a Nobel were shattered when the discovery was proven wrong. Again, the author quotes Feynman’s warning to researchers:

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Unfortunately, the lay reader may feel like a fool in attempting to tackle Space Oddities. Because of its complexity, the book can become a slog after just a few pages. It’s incredibly technical and tough to understand, and it lacks an index. While the science is happily not dumbed down, the book’s jacket and blurbs suggest you’re in for a riveting mix of mysteries, stories, and anomalies concerning the field of theoretical physics. In fact, the entire book is an anomaly and not written in the accessible style I expected.

Paul D. Pearlstein is a retired lawyer who loved physics but not his high-school physics teacher. He is disturbed that many colleges use science to scare off curious students who like the field but aren’t Mensa or pre-med candidates.

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