Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The Edge of Physics

Anil Ananthaswamy gave an absolutely brilliant lecture yesterday at IISc about The Edge of Physics, his book on some of the most extreme experiments that are going on at some of the most extreme locations on earth -- for example, the South Pole!


Check out the website of Anil's book, The Edge of Physics: A Journey to Earth's Extremes to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe.

To get a sense of "Earth's Extremes" he visited for his project, see this page.

Anil's blog is here. I posted his lecture's abstract here.

* * *

Anil is an alumnus of IIT-M and the University of Washington. After a brief stint in the software industry, he decided to pursue his dream of science writing. He went back to school -- to the science journalism program at UC-Santa Cruz. He joined New Scientist as an intern a decade ago, and is now a Consulting Editor at that magazine -- check out his most recent story.

"Edge" is just the right word to describe the essence of Anil's project:

  • The science part of Anil's story is about experiments that aim to answer Big Questions at the frontiers of two of the most fundamental sciences: cosmology and particle physics.

  • The experiments are right at the very edge of our current engineering capabilities. We are talking about, for example,

    1. detecting extremely rare events producing tiny signals -- neutrino striking a water molecule in a large body of water -- a 3 km thick sheet of ice at the South Pole or a 650 km long Lake Baikal, Siberia.

    2. high precision measurements of extremely weak signals -- for example, those coming in from deep inside the universe.

  • The 'edge of earth' locations are the other part of Anil's story -- the travelogue. These are the "Earth's Extremes" where these experiments are going on, because they provide the greatest immunity from adverse effects of the atmosphere or human habitations. So, the experimenters end up toiling away in such barren, high altitude locations such as Atacama Desert in the Chilean Andes, or Ladakh in the Indian Himalayas. In the case of balloons that go up tens of kilometers into the sky, the right conditions are found only in places like the Ross Ice Shelf near McMurdo, Antarctica.

  • Scientists and support staff living the hard life -- of constructing their equipment under hazardous conditions, sometimes carrying on even after serious injury. All because of their passion for science.

To me, the most interesting feature of Anil's work is his focus on experimentalists -- the folks who get a couple of pages in most pop science books while their theory siblings hog hundreds.

Part popular science and part travelogue, Anil's talk took us on a guided tour of the Big Questions in 21st century cosmology (with a bit of history) and the "Earth's Extremes" where experimenters are trying to answer them. The guided tour made deft use of some of the most wonderful pictures I have seen. Barren, inhospitable and godforsaken places have never looked more beautiful!

The ideas, the people, the places and the pics gelled together nicely in Anil's talk, keeping the audience spellbound for nearly 80 minutes -- breaking the TED-era attention span barrier by a factor of four! [Even more impressive is that most people stuck around for a further 40 minutes of Q&A.]

Anil's talk has had just one downside for me: I'm now impatient for the release of The Edge of Physics! While we, in India, have to wait until May, it's out in March in the US, and in April in the UK.


  1. Anonymous said...

    I am moving from US to one of the IITs. Can anyone share the cheapest mode of transporting household goods/belongings from US to India.

  2. Anonymous said...

    Anon #1: If you are moving before May, could you please buy The Edge of Physics for Abi and pass it on to him? Thanks!

  3. pradeepkumar pi said...

    Ano1: Why you want to be anonymous asking this question?
    Ano2: Why you want be anonymous giving such an answer. Abi can get his copy through Abebooks. They are pretty good in shipping books to India .

  4. tris said...

    did you read the book yet?