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Hunting Down the Universe: The Missing Mass, Primordial Black Holes, and Other Dark Matters

By Michael Hawkins. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1997.

Hunting Down the Universe could have been a great book; as it is, it is still more fascinating and more worth reading than the majority of “popular science” cosmology books on the market, even those that are better “books.”

Hawkins’ undertaking is grotesque: part polemic, part history, part philosophical rhapsody, and part popular science. Chapter titles such as “Survival of the Weakest,” “The Principle of Maximum Trivialization,” “In the Land of the Blind,” and “Detritus” are simultaneously ironic, descriptive metaphors for their scientific/philosophical subject matter, and expressions of the author’s cynicism and anger. Yet there is a method to the madness: seven of the thirteen chapter titles thematize sight and the inability to see, and contain such terms as ‘mist,’ ‘dark,’ ‘blind,’ ‘unseen’, and ‘black holes.’ Hunting Down the Universe is arguably more about epistemology and the search for knowledge than it is about a specific scientific result.

The purpose of popular cosmology books, such as Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, is to make scientific theories about the workings and origins of the Universe accessible to a lay audience, and to the extent that the material they have to explain often lies at the boundary or even outside the realm of “everyday” experience and “common sense,” books on astronomy and cosmology face the same difficulties as books on quantum mechanics, such as John R. Gribbin’s In search of Schrödinger’s Cat and Heinz R. PagelsThe Cosmic Code [aside: Pagels’ wife, Elaine, is a professor of religion at Princeton, and has written on early Gnostic Christianity; the link might be of interest to a number of readers here]. Although science is a complex, social and intellectual enterprise, most popular science books either choose to present an encyclopedic array of information (many of Asimov’s volumes, and Sagan’s Cosmos to a lesser degree, follow this route) or they organize their presentation around a thesis or historical development, which adds a teleology to the text. Based on an uncritical reading of the title of Hawkins’ book, one might expect a survey of cosmological theories over the past several decades, climaxing with a crisis (e.g. missing mass and the search for dark matter), and concluding with evidence that most of the missing dark matter—necessary for certain current theories to remain viable—is to be found in primordial black holes scattered rather evenly and commonly throughout the Universe; such a naive expectation, however, is promptly shattered.

Indeed, as Hawkins states at the beginning of the book, “Toward the end of 1993, I brought to completion a project that had occupied me on and off for the previous seventeen years. The remarkable conclusion I found myself with was that about 99 percent of the material Universe is made up of primordial black holes” (3), yet only the final four chapters focus on this theme; the remainder (and greater portion) of the book deals with the Steady State versus Big Bang debate(s), empiricism versus rationalism, the goals and limits of science, and the politics of scientific inquiry. Each of these other topics is dealt with not merely as a footnote or digression along the path to Hawkins’ own personal theory, but is instead developed in great enough depth to be taken seriously by the author, and hence by the reader.

Especially strong are the sections devoted to the empiricism versus rationalism debates. Part of this, such as Hawkins’ vitriol aimed at Steven Weinberg, is polemical (and borders on the airing of dirty laundry); part, such as the evocation of Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Wittgenstein, and Popper, is philosophical in nature; yet the “dialogues” of Chapter 7, “In the Land of the Blind,” are perhaps the most interesting contribution. Curiously, however, while Hawkins spends extensive time discussing rationalism, truth, empiricism, the theory-laden nature of evidence, and the social and political forces at work in scientific endeavors, neither in the text nor in the bibliography does he make mention of contemporary and relevant philosophers, sociologists, and historians of science, for example Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) and Sharon Twaweek (Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physicists).

Other topics are either less-fully developed or left in such ambiguity as to confuse the reader. For example, as is clear from the beginning of the book, Hawkins feels that his mentor, Fred Hoyle, has been unjustly vilified and dismissed in the broader astronomical community, and furthermore that Hoyle still has valuable insights that astronomers and cosmologists would do well to heed. Yet while Hoyle is presented in the 2nd Chapter (“Descent In the Mist”) as a foil to Weinberg’s über-rationalism and as a champion of expunging the mystical from cosmology, at the same time Hoyle is later a rationalist theoretician, in contrast to more experimentally-minded astronomers, and Hawkins clearly prefers Richard Dawkins’ atheism over Hoyle’s Christianity.

Hawkins, who expresses deep concerns about rationalism as a scientific model, and who then points out the flaws and limits of pure empiricism, seems to reach toward Richard Dawkins and even Charles Darwin. Indeed, some of the more subtle wit of Hawkins’ book is expressed at the end, when he admits that he was at first not willing to take the necessary leap and embrace and accept the more radical conclusions his research indicated, and that he did so only after a (skeptical) friend and colleague convinced him it was the only possibility. One is reminded of Hawkins’s own relating of the story of how “T.H. Huxley [...] eventually made Darwin face up to and embrace the frightening and liberating fact that his ideas were irreconcilable with the world order of the Victorian age” (88). However, this reader at times wondered how Darwin and Dawkins fit into the overall aim(s) of the book, for they are integrated neither with the philosophical debate(s) nor the astronomical-cosmological discourse. Furthermore, Hawkins (thankfully!) does not take the (currently non-scientific) leap that Smolin takes in The Life of the Cosmos, that is: seeing our Universe as one of many descended through a curious “survival of the fittest” process.

As a warning to readers, it must be mentioned that Hunting Down the Universe is not a book for those who have little or no background in cosmology and astronomy, for unlike Hawking’s Brief History of Time and similar works it does not provide much background information. While the Steady State and Big Bang models receive some coverage, Inflation, as a solution to problems encountered in Big-Bang theories, is never really explained to the reader, even though it plays a central role in the book. The book also reads as if a BASIC programmer using lots of GOTO statements had been in charge of organizing it; throughout the book topics are mentioned in passing, and then the author comments that while they are important, he won’t be dealing with them until a later chapter. On the other hand, a term such as the Einstein Radius is introduced and explained in nearly identical language a half dozen times throughout the text. While the chapters only average about 13–14 pages in length, due to their essayistic and rambling organization, they could have used subdivisions to make them easier to read.

Perhaps most fascinating for a book in this genre, there are absolutely no graphics or visual aids. Given the themes of blindness, dark matter, and the limits of the senses, this is curiously appropriate. In addition, there is little math the reader will need to digest; general relativity is described in geometric terms with little reliance on jargon, and the Hubble constant and ω receive coverage, but no equations, formulae, etc.

Because Hunting Down the Universe does not cover a single theme in a biographical, historical, or logical fashion, it comes across as fragmented and rhapsodic; yet Hawkins’ book is still worth reading and keeping on one’s shelf. Its glossary of terms is extensive, its bibliography concise, and its index comprehensive. The quotes beginning each chapter are on-topic and not merely window dressing. Whereas other popular cosmology books are uncontroversial, organized in a straight-forward fashion, and full of slick visual aids, Hawkins realizes that his theory might be shot down (yet that hardly invalidates the other 3/4 of the book dealing with scientific politics, philosophy, etc.), and the author’s wonderfully fresh metaphors, smart readings of Wittgenstein and others, and reflections on the practice of astronomy, will provide the educated reader with new insights and “dark matters” to consider.