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The Edge of Physics

New book highlights research about the universe in Antarctica


Anil Ananthaswamy began a long trip in October 2005, one that would take him to a Chilean desert to Siberia and South Africa to the bottom of the world in Antarctica and beyond. This wasn’t some backpacker trip around the world, with a dusty rucksackslung over his shoulder.

But like many such travelers, Ananthaswamy was on a quest to understand the universe. The difference was that his journey to the ends of the Earth took him to the planet’s cutting-edge experiments — a telescope in the Atacama Desert, the Large Hadron Collider hundreds of meters below the ground and the IceCube Neutrino Observatory at the South Pole Station.

The Edge of Physics, his book about the journey, is a travelogue that celebrates science, recounting his search of the telescopes, detectors and experiments that promise to shed light on the most pressing questions in physics and cosmology today. Two chapters of the book are dedicated to his trip to Antarctica, sponsored by the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program.

Here Ananthaswamy talks about his motivation behind writing the book, crossing eight time zones on an unreliable aircraft to Lake Baikal, and opines on the chances of ever really understanding dark matter, let alone the rest of the universe.

1. Why did you want to write this book?

To communicate the sense of wonder that comes out of understanding what’s being done in physics — especially cosmology and particle physics. Words like “particle physics” tend to put off many people, and I wanted to reach out to them by approaching the subject in a very different manner. The Edge of Physics is a personal travelogue, in which I visit many remote regions of our planet, from the Atacama Desert in the Chilean Andes to the South Pole, to see cutting-edge telescopes and instruments. I use the narrative to tell the story of what is happening in physics, particularly cosmology. The hope is that the allure of these far-flung places will draw in otherwise reluctant readers.

2. What did you learn from the experience of writing the book — not necessarily about the science but about people and their motivations to pursue these grand experiments?

I came away impressed by the sheer persistence of experimental physicists. All these experiments are incredibly complex, and most of them are being done in hostile places, such as Lake Baikal in the peak of the Siberian winter, or at the South Pole. And what’s even more amazing is the fact that the experiments are looking for things that may not exist in the form expected by the physicists. So years, even decades, of work could go waste. Still, they persist. Two quotes from the book will help illustrate the point better.

Michael Dragowsky works on the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search experiment deep inside an abandoned iron mine in Soudan, Minnesota.  The experiment has seen nothing in all its years of looking for dark matter. Still, the physicists are compelled to continue. Dragowsky typifies the experimentalist’s mindset. “Ultimately, you have to take some pleasure from making the system that supports the detectors,” he said. “You have to be overwhelmingly driven by the idea that you want to make this measurement. It allows you to push through the frustrations that are associated with making a complicated, delicate apparatus come to life.”

Fabiola Gianotti, the spokesperson for the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland, gave another glimpse into the mindset of some physicists. The LHC and ATLAS could uncover some deep truths about the universe. Gianotti confessed to “feelings of excitement and the awareness of being close to something very important and great for humankind.” She quoted the 13th-century Italian poet Dante Alighieri: Fatto non foste a viver come bruti ma per seguir virtute et conoscenza (“We were created not to live as animals but to pursue virtue and knowledge.”) “As human beings, the pursuit of fundamental research and knowledge is a need for us, which separates us from animals or vegetables. It is like the need for art,” Gianotti said.

3. What was the most difficult journey that you made for the book and why?

You’d think that the most difficult trip was the one to the South Pole. But honestly, after I was selected by the National Science Foundation’s Artists and Writers Program to go to Antarctica, I was in the extremely capable hands of the U.S. Antarctic Program. Getting selected was difficult, but the trip itself was smooth and an unforgettable experience.

I’d say that the most difficult journey was the trip to Lake Baikal in Siberia. It was one of the earliest trips I made for the book, and I was not on sure footing, literally and figuratively. The lake hosts a gigantic underwater neutrino telescope, and for reasons that I explain in the book, the physicists have to work during the winter, when the lake is frozen over. The trip took a while to arrange, and the physicists helped me do all the paperwork to get to Russia (the applications were all in Russian). The flight to Irkutsk from London (via Moscow) crossed eight time zones. I had heard some disturbing stories about internal flights in Russia, in terms of the safety record of the airplanes. As it happened, the very same flight that I took from Moscow to Irkutsk would crash three months later at Irkutsk, killing 124 people.

I had hoped that upon arriving at Lake Baikal, I would spend a few days getting used to life on the lake shore, and then venture on to the ice. So, I was more than a little panicked when the physicists who picked me up from Irkutsk in a Russian military jeep reached the lake and then started driving on it for about 40 kilometres. There was no coastal road to reach the telescope: you had to drive on the frozen lake! To add to my fears, I went there unprepared in my “European summer shoes” — as one physicist remarked with shock in his voice. I spent many days slithering about on the ice in my smooth-soled shoes. My fault entirely.

Still, it was one of the loveliest experiences imaginable. The Russians and Germans who work on the telescope were great hosts. The trips to Lake Baikal, Antarctica and the Indian Himalayas stand out in my mind as the most intense and memorable.

4. This book is written for the layperson but your subject is a difficult and abstract one. How do you make something like cosmology engaging, entertaining and educational?

Partly by using the narrative structure of a travelogue. I also avoid using any mathematics and formulae. But most importantly, I focus on the people who are doing the science. Physics and cosmology, however esoteric and difficult, is a human enterprise. By weaving the science with stories of people who do the experiments and descriptions of the places where the work is being done, I hope that the subject never seems too abstract and difficult. That’s the hope, anyway. Throughout the book, I never spend more than three to four paragraphs on difficult concepts in physics, before breaking away to talk of other things, like how redwood trees trap fog along the California coast, or how the Russians tried to lay a railway line on top of a frozen lake in the winter of 1904-05 to get troops and ammunition to the other side of Siberia. All of these segues are related to the topic at hand, even if obliquely.

5. There are a lot of big, unanswered questions about the universe, and it seems the more we learn, the less we know in some ways. Do you think we will make real progress this century in answering some of those questions these experiments are designed to answer?

I think some questions are closer to being answered than others. My feeling is that the plethora of dark matter experiments that are trying to detect dark matter either directly or indirectly will provide some answers. The experiments have become so sensitive that even if they don’t see anything, it’ll give us big clues to what lies ahead. But the sense in the dark matter community is that these experiments are on the cusp of discovery.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) should provide breakthroughs for particle physics that could prove extremely important. I’m not talking just of discovering the Higgs Boson (or the so-called God Particle), which is thought to give other elementary particles mass. Most physicists expect that as a given. The LHC could create dark matter, or find signs of extra dimensions, or give us glimpses of new physics, all of which would be of immense significance.

So, yes, we will make progress this century. Whether it’ll be enough to bring us closer to a theory of everything is another matter altogether.

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Curator: Michael Lucibella, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Peter West, Division of Polar Programs