The 4 Percent Universe

Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality
Narrated by: Ray Porter
Length: 10 hrs and 7 mins
4 out of 5 stars (1,636 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

Over the past few decades, a handful of scientists have been racing to explain a disturbing aspect of our universe: only four percent of it consists of the matter that makes up you, me, our books, and every star and planet. The rest is completely unknown.

Richard Panek tells the dramatic story of the quest to find this “dark” matter and an even more bizarre substance called “dark energy”. This is perhaps the greatest mystery in all of science, and solving it will bring fame, funding, and certainly a Nobel Prize. Based on in-depth reporting and interviews with the major players—from Berkeley’s feisty, excitable Saul Perlmutter and Harvard’s witty but exacting Robert Kirshner to the doyenne of astronomy, Vera Rubin—the book offers an intimate portrait of the bitter rivalries and fruitful collaborations, the eureka moments and blind alleys, that have fueled their search, redefined science, and reinvented the universe.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. Our view of the cosmos is profoundly wrong, and Copernicus was only the beginning: not just Earth, but all common matter is a marginal part of existence. Panek’s fast-paced narrative, filled with original reporting and behind-the-scenes details, brings this epic story to life for the very first time.

©2011 Richard Panek (P)2011 Blackstone Audio, Inc.

Critic Reviews

“It’s the biggest mystery of all: why is the universe expanding at an accelerated rate? At its heart is a search for what forces and particles make up reality. It baffled Einstein, and it now obsesses a cadre of fascinating cosmologists. By brilliantly capturing their passions and pursuits, Richard Panek has made this cosmic quest exciting and understandable.” (Walter Isaacson, New York Times best-selling author of Einstein: His Life and Universe)
“A superior account of how astronomers discovered that they knew almost nothing about 96 percent of the universe…. Panek delivers vivid sketches of scientists, lucid explanations of their work, and revealing descriptions of the often stormy rivalry that led to this scientific revolution, usually a media cliché, but not in this case.” ( Kirkus Reviews)
“Science journalist Panek offers an insider’s view of the quest for what could be the ultimate revelation.... This lively story of big personalities, intellectual competitiveness, and ravenous curiosity is as entertaining as it is illuminating.” ( Publishers Weekly)

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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Just Right - Not too technical not boring

This is a pleasant story of some of the characters and events in astrophysics over the last few decades with a focus on recent data showing the expansion of the universe is unexpectedly accelerating. The characters presented are pleasure to listen to and the level of technical detail is nice for a general audience without being boring to a technical reader. The narration is really good for this kind of material.

39 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

The recent history in Astronomy / Cosmology

What this book is not, 1) a text book or 2) detailed explanation of Astrophysics.
What this is a history of Astronomy for the last 40 years.
Richard Panek is a journalist and this book is a detailed account in the personalities in Astronomy for the last 40 years that lead to the ideas that we can see only 4% of the Universe and how we see inflation.
Given that i've been out of school for 30 years my math can't follow the detailed cosmology text book but this book provides a clear reasoning why we believe the universe is accelerating and the problems that provides for theatrical physicists. If you love Astrophysics/Cosmology books give this a read.

56 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars

A great first cosmology book.

This book brought me up to speed with the current state of the art in physics and astronomy. This was the first science book I had read in years and it was a great choice. He explains the science such that even I could follow it. I warn you, if you are new to reading science books, this one will inspire you into reading many, many other science books.

23 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars

Excellent survey of Cosmology and Astrophysics

I really enjoyed this book. I listened to it twice back-to-back. The content is highly engaging, the pacing is brisk, and the narration was very expressive. A great listen that is as informative as it is enjoyable to listen to. If you are interested in the big bang, the expanding universe, dark matter, dark energy, the cosmic microwave background radiation, cosmic structures and superstructures, then this book is a good fit. It explains those topics along with the people, groups, and collaborations that drove important research on those and more topics in the last 100 years.

39 people found this helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars

Not What I Expected

I expected a good, well organized primer on theories surrounding dark matter. By "Race to Discover the Rest of Reality" I thought the author would describe bleeding edge research into higher theoretical physics. I was surprised to find that he mean't this quite literally. He focuses mainly on the competition between groups of scientists and universities to be the first to publish on various topics.

We are given smatterings of physics theory with loads of academic esoterica. There are lengthy sections describing how this or that scientist came to feel their toes had been stepped on or how someone had stabbed them in the back by publishing before agreed upon dates. Perhaps I simply misunderstood what the book was about to but these sort of things don't interest me at all. Perhaps an anecdote here or there might be interesting but this goes way beyond that.

If you are hoping to read about physics or the cosmos I recommend one of the books by Brian Greene. They explore cosmic theory in great detail and in a highly engaging manner, without overwhelming you with math or the kind of personal gripes that are described here.

107 people found this helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars

A surprisingly good yarn

OK -- I'm a science nerd, and I was expecting a science nerd book: Another book about cosmology, quantum mechanics, string theory and whatnot to bring me to a closer understanding of things that you can't really understand without the math. (Which I don't have. Not a math nerd. Sigh.)

Instead, I got a very engaging story about scientists poking at the edges of reality, with actual plot, intrigue, politics, and drama. This was the life I had envisioned for myself in high school. After hearing this book, how I wish I hadn't switched gears! I coulda been in this story. I coulda been a contenda ...

Yeah -- this book actually makes scientists seem like rock stars. OK -- really peculiar rock stars. More peculiar than usual -- but still...

I think some layman's background in the topics (astronomy and particle physics) would be helpful, but you don't need to be a scientist to enjoy this book. And despite the fact that this is not really a science book, you will come away a pretty good understanding of what it's all about. Although I knew much of the science here, this book put things into perspective and gave me a deeper understanding of it all. A view from 30,000 feet is sometime what you need to have it all make sense.

I didn't give it five stars because this is not Stephen King, after all. But it's a really good listen.

The narrator deserves a lot of credit for making this a really good listen. He has a lively and energetic style, and I could hardly believe he had not lived the story.

48 people found this helpful

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Much better than I anticpated

I downloaded this with a little hesitation, being fairly familiar with dark matter and dark energy and their effects upon the expanding universe. I had some trepidation that this would simply rehash information I already had. Much to my delight, the book really dug into the politics of science and the scientists involved in the race to discovery. Sure, many of us know about Gamov, Wilson, Penzias, COBE, hyper novae as standard candles, etc. What made this a great read/listen was learning about the two teams racing to discover those hyper novae, who and how the teams were assembled, the different approaches, and such. Contrary to George's review (and he has every right to have wanted a different perspective), I enjoyed this book thoroughly because of its look at the human and political side of science.

11 people found this helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

Not Michio Kaku

Sometimes I get stuck on an author and compare everything else I read in that genre to that author. Such is the case with Michio Kaku. I read Parallel Universes when it first came out and was blown away. As I wrote in my review, most of the book was way over my head but somehow I got a feel and glimmer of understanding for even those parts of the book that were. Kaku has a genius that makes the almost incomprehensible concepts in physics sometimes seem simple and obvious. The 4 Percent Universe did not leave me feeling that way.

I would not say that Panek was unclear in the 4 Percent Universe. Actually, I had the feel that it was more a flat lesson in the history of science. It was a book that just had fewer revelations for me. With Kaku there were just so many "Ah Ha" moments. Hopefully, without sounding too hokey, when reading Kaku, there were moments of what felt like transcendence, an altered state of consciousness. Pretty high bar to set huh? Yeah, I know. Sorry, Richard Panek. You were just fine... just not Michio Kaku.

37 people found this helpful

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Mostly history, drama, and infighting

Plenty of detail here on the lives of the astronomers who pieced together the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy, but all that detail actually made me understand less rather than more. The book focuses on the drama and infighting of the scientific community, but in the process of listening to these stories the science and explanations behind these discoveries gets lost.

5 people found this helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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Excellent scientific history of dark energy/matter

What about Ray Porter’s performance did you like?

As always, Porter is an excellent steward for the work. He imbues excitement and energy into a topic that is difficult. His narration helped bring the individual players to life.

Any additional comments?

Really excellent science book explaining how scientists discovered dark matter and dark energy (and thus realized that we had only been looking at about 4% -- or, per more recent measurements 5% -- of our universe). The author does an admirable job trying to make the subject matter accessible to a lay reader. It is that difficult balance between giving sufficient detail to be accurate and not overwhelming a reader who does not possess advanced degrees in physics and astronomy. I think Panek largely succeeds, and where he doesn't it isn't really his fault - you can only make things so simple, at some point this science is a heavy lift. What is really refreshing is that he not only walks you through the discoveries, the advances, the struggle for primacy in the field, but he also imbues the players (dozens of scientists) with personalities. I believe this is a book I'll reread again, just to really grasp the subject matter. Recommended for those who would like to see how much more there is to the universe than meets the eye.

4 people found this helpful