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LDB payload readied for launch.
Photo Credit: Robyn Waserman/Antarctic Photo Library
An experiment called CREAM (Cosmic Ray Energetics and Mass) is prepared to launch from a site near McMurdo Station on a long-duration balloon in 2008. Author Anil Ananthaswamy highlights these high-flying experiments and others taking place in Antarctica and around the world in a new book. 

The Edge of Physics

New book highlights research about the universe in Antarctica

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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 (LHC) External Non-U.S. government site hundreds of meters below the ground and the IceCube Neutrino Observatory External Non-U.S. government site at the South Pole Station External U.S. government site.

Book Cover

The Edge of Physics External Non-U.S. government site, 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 External U.S. government site.

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.

Anil Ananthaswamy
Anil Ananthaswamy

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 External Non-U.S. government site works on the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search External Non-U.S. government site 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 External Non-U.S. government site at the LHC at CERN External Non-U.S. government site, 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.1 2   Next