It’s remarkable enough that our bodies, our planet, and even the stars in the sky are made up of the same sorts of matter. What’s even more mind-bending, though, is that only four per cent of the entire universe consists of stuff we know—the other 96 per cent is a complete mystery. “Get rid of us and of everything else we’ve ever thought of as the universe,” Panek writes, “and very little would change.”
The vast majority of the universe is made up of so-called “dark” matter, which accounts for about 23 per cent of it, and “dark” energy, an even weirder something or other that makes up the other 73 per cent. Drawing on hundreds of interviews, on-the-scene reporting and emails between collaborators, Panek charts 50 years’ worth of efforts to answer one of the biggest questions in the history of science: what is the universe made of?
An experienced science writer, Panek has his work cut out for him, because this isn’t an easy story to tell. The writing can get a little technical, but even those without a science background will be able to grasp his meaning. Panek’s enthusiasm for the topic, and the colourful scientists and researchers who populate this book—men and women who aren’t above indulging in a good jealous rivalry or two—add juice to the narrative when it threatens to get a little bit dry.
If 96 per cent of everything is made up of stuff we don’t understand, it’s easy to feel irrelevant: “We’re just a bit of pollution,” one theorist says. But Panek dishes out his insights so cheerfully, and with so much optimism, that it’s impossible not to get excited by how much we’ve yet to learn.