Sunday 22 January 2017

The Big Bang Theory and a whole lot more

Science: Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs, Lisa Randall, Bodley Head, hdbk, 432 pages, €17

Published 20/03/2016 | 02:30

Top boffin: Randall is one of the world’s leading theoretical physicists.
Top boffin: Randall is one of the world’s leading theoretical physicists.
Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs

Lisa Randall is one of those impossibly accomplished people who feel almost as if they belong to a different species. Homo Superior, maybe. Homo Bigger Brain. Homo Highly Impressive.

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The 53-year-old American is one of the world's leading theoretical physicists. She's current Professor of Science at Harvard's Physics faculty (also the first tenured female theoretical physicist at that university, and, previously, first tenured woman in Princeton's physics department).

She's done ground-breaking work on elementary particles, possible extra dimensions in space-time, the Standard Model, supersymmetry, baryogenesis - I don't even know what that is - cosmological inflation and dark matter.

Randall also finds time to be an author, her four bestselling books helping to popularise science and explain some of these mind-boggling ideas to Joe Public. Her latest, Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs, takes a massively broad scope, as indicated by the sub-title, The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe.

In short: dinosaurs were once the most successful large organisms on the planet. (Microbes and bacteria and suchlike, of course, have and will outlast everything else.) For hundreds of millions of years, dinos ruled the roost.

Then they were mostly wiped out, during the K-Pg mass-extinction event - one of five in history - and that was mostly caused by a massive meteoroid hitting the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico.

(Point of information: an asteroid is a large floating object in space that's smaller than a planet; a comet is one with a tail of ice; a meteoroid is an asteroid measuring a metre or smaller; a meteor is the flash of light caused by its entry into earth's atmosphere; a meteorite is what actually hits the planet if it doesn't burn up. For practical purposes, Randall uses meteoroid as a catch-all term.)

This was the equivalent of millions of atom bombs exploding at once; the animals best adapted to survive and thrive were smaller, warm-blooded, and in some cases, able to live underground.

Now we come to the physics and cosmology parts. Enormous chunks of space-rock don't hit earth very often; they have their own orbits and normally don't come anywhere near this side of the solar system.

Roughly every 32 million years, however, random asteroids/comets/meteroids are hurled in our direction from the Oort cloud: a gigantic collection of these objects, at an unfathomable distance from earth, right at the edge of our solar system. The reason this happens, Randall argues, is that at these intervals, our solar system passes through a disk of dark matter, which lies in the centre of the Milky Way galaxy, and upsets the normal gravitational to-and-fro that keeps these asteroids in the Oort cloud.

So, essentially, we have dark matter to thank for the fact that we're even here to read Randall's book. No dark matter disk means no wobble in the solar system's gravitational balance means no giant rocks hurled from the Oort cloud means no Yucatan impact means no dinosaur wipe-out means no rise to ascendancy of mammals, then apes, then mankind.

I'll be honest: I barely understood a quarter of this book. Randall dumbs it down as much as possible, but I personally - and I'm probably not alone - am just that bit dumber.

What is dark matter? Couldn't tell you, really. How does the dark matter disk/Oort cloud interface actually work? Not sure. How do scientists know all this stuff anyway? I couldn't follow that bit.

But it's a very enjoyable, albeit demanding, read all the same. Randall skips from the Big Bang to virtually every branch of hard science - physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology, molecular biology and all the rest - in putting together a compelling and fascinating portrait of a compelling and fascinating place: the universe.

On the very last page she asks us to look around us at the boundless (in all senses) cosmos, just waiting for us to explore and try to understand it. Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs is a good place to start.

Darragh McManus's novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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