Doomed

My review of

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs

Lisa Randall

Bodley Head

Almost as published in Literary Review

 

This book comes garlanded with tributes, headed by the claim “Only Lisa Randall can take us on such a thrilling scientific journey.” I beg to differ. Off the top of my head, I can think of half a dozen science writers who could do a better job of describing this particular scientific story (and some of them have covered almost all of the material presented here). The clue is in the words “science writers”. Randall fits into as particular niche which has recently become over-full. She is a world-renowned scientist, in her case based at Harvard University, and wrote a splendid book about her own area of expertise, Warped Passages. So far, so good. But since then, like others in a similar situation, she has strayed, or been encouraged to stray, authorially, into territory outside her own specialist area, territory that is already better covered by writers who understand science but, at least as importantly, are gifted communicators. George Musser, in her homeland, and Brian Clegg, on this side of the pond, are two that spring to mind.

If it were not for her academic status, Randall’s latest book would pass by as just another rather humdrum account of the origin and evolution of the Universe (and probably I would not be reviewing it). Its only claim to be special is a rather desperate one – the tenuous titular link between dark matter and the fate of the dinosaurs, which is no more than a highly speculative variation on an idea that has been around for decades.

That idea is that as the Solar System bobs up and down on its route around the Galaxy, and repeatedly crosses the disc of the Milky Way like the needle of a sewing machine bobbing up and down through a piece of cloth, gravitational forces shake loose comets from the region known as the Oort Cloud, far beyond the orbit of Pluto. Some of these comets fall inward towards the Sun, where they may collide with the Earth, with devastating consequences. The idea is based on some rather dodgy statistics linking alleged periodicities in so–called mass extinctions of life on Earth (including the death of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago) with the periodicities associated with the bobbing movement of the Sun in its orbit around the Milky Way. The statistics are made no less dodgy by Randall’s wild suggestion (even Randall herself calls it “a speculative scenario”) that a layer of dark matter within the galactic disc, like the meat in a hamburger, is what provides the gravitational tug that shakes the comets loose.

This does, of course, provide an ideal opportunity to discuss the nature of dark matter, and its role in the evolution of the Universe. But any scientifically aware person must by now be familiar with the idea that the kind of stuff we are made of (in essence, atoms) makes up only a small proportion of the matter in the Universe, so that stars and galaxies are embedded in a sea of invisible dark matter, which interacts with our kind of stuff only through gravity. Anyone who has an interest in cosmology also knows about dark energy, and the discoveries about the cosmic background radiation recently made by satellites such as NASA’s WMAP and ESA’s Planck. Randall covers all this, and a discussion of the Solar System and our place in it, in workmanlike fashion. But workmanlike really isn’t good enough, when the stories have been covered so often, and so well, already. I quite like the personal vignettes, such as Randall’s description of meteor watching in the Rocky Mountains. But these ought to be the icing on the cake, not the highlights, of a book like this. Even the discussion of dark matter is over-familiar, except for the minor (and unconvincing) twist in the tail.

A bit less than the last quarter of the book actually addresses the topic of the title (I’m being generous; arguably less than half that) and a large chunk of this is taken up with telling us, with commendable honesty, about all the uncertainties in the claim. Dinosaurs sell books (as do cats), and I don’t blame Randall for trying to sex up her subject. But all the new and interesting (though probably wrong) stuff here could have comfortably been encapsulated in an article for Scientific American. Who might benefit from the book? A complete newcomer, maybe the proverbial teenager who as yet knows nothing about the Universe and the place of the Earth in space. Who will be disappointed by it? Anyone interested in dinosaurs. And what should the book have been called? The Speed of Dark, as any Terry Pratchett fan could tell you.

It would not be fair to say that I am disappointed by the book, because I had low expectations. But it is fair to say that those expectations have been fulfilled. The real disappointment is that if she had not been busy writing this very average account of the Universe, Randall could have been concentrating on her research, which really is thrilling. There is an expression about cobblers and lasts which is apposite.

 

 

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