Connecting Ideas in Astrophysics & Cosmology

There are many areas of scientific research that resonate strongly with the general public, from genetics to neuroscience to particle physics, but few can compare with the appeal of astrophysics and cosmology.

Perhaps it boils down to a question of accessibility. Appreciating the finer points of the structure of DNA or a proton can be daunting even for highly-trained professionals, but everyone knows what it’s like to look up at the night sky in awe and wonder.

It’s not that astrophysics is easy, of course — far from it — it’s that, somehow, its fundamental allure is so universal as to almost not need stating. Tell someone at a party that you’re studying geology and you’ll likely be asked, “So, what are you going to do with that?” Tell people that you’re studying astronomy, on the other hand, and you’ll probably simply hear, “Cool!

Even the most practically-minded person, it seems, can’t help but feel a deep sense of personal fascination at the prospect of uncovering some secrets of the universe. And over the past few decades, things have only got more fascinating still.

Cosmology, once regarded as little more than speculative hand-waving, has been stunningly transformed into one of the most rigorous, data-driven fields in all of science. Dark matter has gone from being viewed as some conceptual or observational mistake that astronomers are one day going to sort out a mysterious entity that accounts for more than one quarter of the total energy of the universe. Black holes have moved from theoretically possible structures to relatively common astrophysical objects, with startlingly large ones, of masses millions or billions times that of our sun, now being thought to lie at the heart of most, if not all, galaxies.

And, perhaps most significant still, rather than the expansion rate of the universe slowing down due to gravity as most people had envisioned, a number of rigorous observations have confirmed that the universe is, in fact, accelerating in its expansion, with the associated force responsible — the so-called “dark energy” — for a shocking 70% of the energy of the universe.

Combining “dark energy” and “dark matter”, then, puts us in the decidedly unexpected position where we’re forced to admit that no less than 95% of the total energy of the known universe lies in stuff we really, to all intents and purposes, are entirely ignorant of.

Talk about awe and wonder.

I’d like to be able to assure you that the answers to all of these questions are contained within this collection of conversations with scientific experts, but of course I can’t.

What I can tell you however, is that each of the five conversations offers a remarkably unique opportunity to get a vivid, first-hand perspective of what it’s like to be at the very forefront of this riveting, rapidly-evolving scientific enterprise.

Justin Khoury, University of Pennsylvania, reveals the often-considerable gap between formal scientific positions and personal scientific desires (Cosmological Conundrums).

Scott Tremaine, Institute for Advanced Study, illustrates how the process of discovery in astrophysics is typically very different from other domains of physics (Astrophysical Wonders).

Rocky Kolb, University of Chicago, admits how, dark energy, in stark contrast to dark matter, simply drives him nuts (A Universe of Particles: Cosmological Reflections).

Paul Steinhardt, Princeton University, describes his profound bemusement at how many of his colleagues flatly deny the multiverse problem of inflationary cosmology (Inflated Expectations: A Cosmological Tale).

Roger Penrose, University of Oxford, relates his longstanding frustration with the fact that so many of his colleagues fail to appreciate the importance of why the universe started out in such a remarkably smooth state, maintaining that the answer usually proposed to account for it — cosmic inflation — actually does no such thing (The Cyclic Universe).

Fully appreciating all the subtleties associated with today’s deep cosmological mysteries is unquestionably difficult. But getting a genuine taste of what the world’s top cosmologists are grappling with turns out to be startlingly easy.

Howard Burton,

This is the preface of Conversations About Astrophysics & Cosmology, a five-part Ideas Roadshow Collection which includes enhanced books that have been developed from in-depth conversations between Howard Burton and Roger Penrose, Paul Steinhardt, Scott Tremaine, Justin Khoury and Rocky Kolb.

This book is now available in electronic format and in paperback format, visit this page for further details:

Howard Burton holds a PhD in theoretical physics and an MA in philosophy. He was the Founding Executive Director of Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.



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