Richard Panek is an excellent science writer. The author of Seeing And Believing and The Invisible Century has proven his proficiency at making highly complex scientific concepts comprehensible by laymen. The problem with The 4% Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy And The Race To Discover The Rest Of Reality is that Panek doesn’t pay enough attention to the science: Instead, he focuses on human drama that falls flat and makes huge chunks of the book a dull slog.
The book covers the quest to comprehend the history and fate of the universe. Panek’s previous titles also portrayed scientists grappling with the inadequacy of the day’s technology as they attempted to expand their understanding of the world, whether by looking through the first telescopes in Seeing And Believing or grasping at the mysteries of relativity and the human psyche in The Invisible Century. Panek ably portrays the phases cosmology went through, starting as a marginalized science based entirely on speculation, and becoming more grounded in fact as luck, new technology, and ingenuity made it possible for scientists to learn more about the universe’s properties. He provides a solid survey of competing theories before settling on the common wisdom that the universe started with a Big Bang and will expand forever. He avoids all the pitfalls that plague novice science writers. Even when he’s describing complex concepts, like the importance of supernova red shifts and quantum particles, his explanations are never overly pedantic or technical. He also has some fascinating subject matter to work with, especially in the later chapters, as scientists struggle with the realization that the type of matter that makes up everything humans can perceive is only a tiny percent of what’s out there.
Unfortunately, all that great discussion fodder is bogged down by Panek’s focus on the teams researching cosmology. Several chapters of The 4% Universe are devoted to rival groups of academics searching for supernovae. It’s hard to care which one wins out. Panek writes that astronomers “roamed some Wild West of the mind, where resources were scarce, competition was fierce, and survival depended on small alliances of convenience, often enduring just long enough to publish a paper.” But he never actually succeeds in making the astronomers feel like characters worth more than basic coverage. All the pages devoted to academics sniping at one another get tedious fast. The people behind the scientific discoveries deserve credit, but the science should still be the star of the book.