Dr. Fred Bortz

Strange Matters: Undiscovered Ideas at the Frontiers of Space and Time

by Tom Siegfried

(Joseph Henry Press, 2002, $24.95, 224 pages)


Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Readers who enjoyed Strange Matters or this review may wish to discover coverAlpha & Omega by Charles Seife or may want to read its review, also on this site.

Dark matter exists, we suspect,
And dimensions we cannot detect.
Universes abound,
Say some theories, profound,
Are they -- only God knows -- correct?

Tom Siegfried, a science journalist with the Dallas Morning News, meets readers at the known limits of physics and cosmology, then leads them beyond, exploring terrains unlike any they ever imagined, rich in undiscovered possibilities, where minds boggle and imaginations stretch to new limits.

Strange Matters: Undiscovered Ideas at the Frontiers of Space and Time presents both historical and future "prediscoveries," focusing on those in which mathematics has not only described physical laws but has also opened new avenues of investigation. Prediscovery is the hallmark of the most successful theories in science, which were often considered fringe ideas until their non-intuitive predictions were borne out by observation.

Mathematical breakthroughs in physics have come at an accelerating pace since the mid-nineteenth century. James Clerk Maxwell's equations prediscovered of the electromagnetic spectrum. Max Planck introduced the quantum as a mathematical construction and prediscovered a fundamental aspect of matter and energy. Albert Einstein's theory of relativity was rich in prediscovery, the unity of mass and energy and the way they curve space being the most significant.

Combining relativity theory and quantum mechanics, Paul Dirac prediscovered antimatter, though he did not claim that antiparticles actually existed. In contrast, the brash Murray Gell-Mann asserted prediscovery when he recognized an underlying symmetry of the burgeoning zoo of elementary particles (with some missing), which he attributed to smaller particles he called quarks.

Emboldened by this history, Mr. Siegfried plunges into a series of chapters organized into three major sections "to tell about ... history that hasn't been made yet." The opening section, "Strange Matters," features the puzzling "dark matter" that makes up most of the Universe but is only known through its gravitational effects.

The second section, "Strange Frontiers," discusses the possibility of multiple universes, the recently discovered acceleration of the Universe's expansion, and "superstring" theory that describes elementary particles and the fundamental forces. The final section, "Strange Ideas," goes beyond general relativity and superstrings to "branes," the shape of the Universe, and a possible second time dimension.

Without resorting to math, Mr. Siegfried illuminates the essential questions of each chapter and finds analogies that put those questions into perspective. He admits that much of what he presents will turn out to be wrong -- scientific progress always requires excursions down blind alleys. Yet he predicts that among the theories are some that will be regarded as great prediscoveries of our time.

One potential prediscovery in the book has already been discredited. Mr. Siegfried cites speculation that the so-called "missing" solar neutrinos may be "mirror" particles, but scientists now understand that neutrinos oscillate among three modes, two of which are undetectable in the current apparatus. As rapidly as science progresses, readers can forgive that flaw in a book full of "undiscovered ideas at the frontiers of space and time."

Fred Bortz, author of eight books for young readers, takes audiences to the undiscovered frontiers of human exploration in his presentation "Our Next Planet: Why, When, and How People Will Settle Other Worlds."