Dr. Fred Bortz

Review of Alpha and Omega: The Search for the Beginning and the End of the Universe

by Charles Seife

(Viking, $24.95, 320 pages, July 2003)


Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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They are humanity's primal questions: where did we come from and what is our future? We are insignificant beings, bound to a rocky speck by nature's weakest force, yet we ponder vast space and time. The infinite meets the infinitesimal, the end is foretold in the beginning, and, writes Charles Seife, we have begun to divine both Alpha and Omega, the birth and death of the universe. We discover the signature of Alpha in careful astronomical measurements of faint irregularities on the fiery wall of the early cosmos. The path to Omega is illuminated by faint "standard candles" in the most distant -- and thus most ancient -- of visible galaxies.

In this book, Mr. Seife re-enters territory that he visited in his earlier Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea (also reviewed on this site) and probes deeper into what physicists call "the vacuum," an emptiness that seethes with virtual particles and energy, from which the universe burst into being as high-energy photons; electrons, neutrinos, and their close cousins of the lepton family; and a quark-gluon plasma too hot to condense into protons, neutrons and other composite particles called mesons and baryons. That was Alpha, and the word burst is an understatement, because much of the emergence apparently took place in an instant of faster-than-light inflation no longer than a billionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second, possible because it was spacetime itself that was inflating.

Mr. Seife also stated in the earlier work that zero is dangerous largely because of its evil twin, infinity, and the question of the bounds of the universe. Only in the past year have astronomers deduced that the universe is like a cannonball on a perverse trajectory that gains speed instead of falling back to earth. Data from the Hubble Space Telescope indicates that the universe is expanding at an increasing rate, propelled outwards by an unknown force -- perhaps a result of the "cosmological constant," which Albert Einstein called his "greatest mistake," or perhaps due to what physicists are calling "dark energy."

The next decade, writes Mr. Seife, will reveal many critical details in experiment and theory. Connecting Alpha to Omega is leading modern physics to recreate the quark-gluon plasma in the world's most powerful particle accelerators, an achievement he predicts will be a sure bet for the Nobel Prize. Remarkably in mid-June 2003, only weeks before the final copies of the book were available, a group at Brookhaven National Laboratory announced evidence that some scientists say signifies that milestone has been reached.

Readers of Tom Siegfried's recent Strange Matters: Undiscovered Ideas at the Frontiers of Space and Time (Joseph Henry Press, 2002) will discover many common topics in Mr. Seife's new book, but, because of different and unique perspectives, the two are more complementary than competitive.

Children's science author and Ph.D. physicist Fred Bortz's upcoming books include the six-book Library of Subatomic Particles.