Quick Questions for Katherine Freese, author of The Cosmic Cocktail: Three Parts Dark Matter

Katherine FreeseKatherine Freese is the George E. Uhlenbeck Professor of Physics at the University of Michigan, and the Associate Director of the Michigan Center for Theoretical Physics. Her work has a strong focus on topics within theoretical cosmology and astroparticle physics, particularly in identifying the dark matter and dark energy that permeate the universe.

Her latest book, The Cosmic Cocktail: Three Parts Dark Matter, details the quest to solve one of the greatest scientific enigmas of all time – what is the universe made of? Dr. Freese, one of the leading experts on dark matter, recounts the earliest speculation about this murky subject stretching from the 1930s to present day in clear, accessible prose. Dr. Freese received her B.A. in Physics from Princeton University; her M.A. in Physics from Columbia University; and her Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Chicago, where she was a recipient of the William Rainey Harper Dissertation Fellowship – the highest honor that the university offers to any graduate student.

Now, on to the questions!

PUP: What inspired you to get into your field?

Katherine Freese: I was lucky to have role models and mentors who encouraged me to go into science. My parents, who were biologists, were among the founders of the field of molecular biology. Since my mother was a scientist, the notion of becoming a woman scientist wasn’t foreign to me. I dedicated my book The Cosmic Cocktail to them, as well at to my Ph.D. advisor, who was also very important.

I started graduate school as an experimentalist, working as a particle accelerator outside of Chicago to study elementary particles. Twice a week I drove into the city to take a class from David Schramm on cosmology. He was a giant of a man, both physically and intellectually. He was an Olympic hopeful wrestling champ, with the nickname “Schrammbo.” His course was so inspiring that I switched fields to work with him as my Ph.D. advisor. The field of particle astrophysics, applying the ideas of the smallest particles to the largest astronomical objects like galaxies, was in its infancy, and I learned from the master.

What would you have been if not a scientist?

I found it very hard to choose only career; in high school and college I loved everything. I always wanted to be a writer and an actress. But in the end I felt compelled to do something using mathematics, because it is ultimately so beautiful and satisfying.


“…We are creating our own questions, always driven by new technology.”


What is the biggest misunderstanding about what you do?

Now this is very funny. When I tell people I’m a cosmologist, they think I must be very good at make-up and they say, “Well that’s a good career for a woman!” No, I’m not a cosmetologist. If I say I’m an astronomer, they want me to read their palms. No, I’m not an astrologer.

If I say I’m a physicist, they think I must live in the world of the nerds because only really geeky people to physics. Well that is just plain wrong! We are not calculating balls rolling down hills (a problem that was solved centuries ago). Instead we are creating our own questions, always driven by new technology. We get to be very creative, and very collaborative, and we have a lot of fun. It is this myth that physicists are boring people that I would like to dispel in this book.

In the end I have learned to say I’m an astrophysicist because people seem to understand that best.

Why did you write this book?

I wrote the book for two reasons. I wanted to communicate the science I work on and I wanted to communicate the experience of being a scientist. It is both a popular-level book about science and a memoir.

The science side is the hunt for dark matter. Most of the matter in galaxies consists of as yet unidentified dark matter, probably some new kind of fundamental particle. This mystery was first identified in the 1930s, and I wrote the book now because scientists feel they are on the verge of discovery. I wanted to communicate the excitement that we are all feeling about resolving the bulk of the mass in the Universe. It is a great story and I thought people should know about it. Everyone should be aware of this momentous breakthrough that changes the way we look at our world.


“Science is collaborative; it’s fun. I wanted to share that experience.”


AND also, very importantly – I wanted to communicate the experience of being a scientist. How much fun it is, how exciting and creative, because I think people don’t realize that. The book tells my personal journey as a scientist, and recounts tales of the personalities of the remarkable people I met along the way. Doing science is in some ways a form of art. In the visual arts, the eyes see the colors and forms; it stimulates the brain and it gives you a high. In physics, it’s a different language, not of color or sound, but of mathematics. I get a high from doing science, and it can be better than drinking a cocktail! We are at the forefront of technology and we get to be very creative, every day. Science is collaborative; it’s fun. I wanted to share that experience.

A third secret reason for writing the book is to reach out to young women, to let them know that they too can pursue their dreams. If math or science is their passion, they should pursue it. Many of the top people in dark matter studies are women and I highlight their successes so that young women can have role models in the sciences.

My book, The Cosmic Cocktail, is the story of this search for dark matter. Like all discoveries and searches and adventures, the hunt for an answer to one of the mysteries of physics has been full of drama and excitement and surprise. And some pretty amazing characters!

Describe your writing process. How long did it take you to finish your book? Where do you write?

It took me about a year and a half to write the book. I’m not a morning person, so I would wake up at around 10 AM, and get to work an hour later. I worked best on my laptop at the kitchen table in my house. Since I am a professor at the University of Michigan, of course I also had to balance my writing with research, teaching, and administrative work at the University. Sometimes for several months I would get nothing done on my book, and other times, I focused on it exclusively. I was working 7 days a week, every waking hour (other than when I was at the gym) to get all this done for about a year, and that was not easy!

In March 2013 I had a concussion in the swimming pool, when another swimmer jumped in without telling me. I came off of the wall after my flip-turn and my head crashed directly into his. It’s a little unfair that he was completely uninjured whereas I was in agony for about a month. Concussion headaches are severe: I remember thinking that the Greek god Hephaestus (the blacksmith to the gods) was hammering a pick into my brain. I thought, just get it over with and split my head open! Since I couldn’t leave the house for a month I was incredibly productive on my book, working on it for up to ten hours a day. I couldn’t handle sound or light of any kind so sat there with my sunglasses on and did nothing but write. Not a modus operandi that I would recommend to anyone else! But I did get a lot done.

What was the biggest challenge involved with bringing this book to life?

I first tried to write a book about cosmology ten years ago, but I didn’t know how to do it. I wrote down a bunch of facts about the Universe, and it all sounded very dry. But over the past ten years, I’ve been teaching students, and I gradually realized that they were much more interested if I told stories. I would describe the personalities of the scientists, or talk about some of the adventures we have in the process of doing the science. Then the students became much more excited about the course I was teaching and they ended up learning a lot more as a consequence. So gradually I came to merge my writing about the subject matter of cosmology with a memoir of my own history as a scientist. I guess you could say I found my “voice” as a writer.

What do you think is the book’s most important contribution?

I hope that I have succeeded in conveying the fun and passion of doing science. I badly would like to dispel the myth that scientists are nerdy people working on boring subjects, calculating formulas to solve problems laid out for us by other people. We are pretty interesting! We create our own problems, driven by new advances in technology that allow us to be creative and fun. I hope I can convince young women that they can participate in this amazingly enjoyable and collaborative world of science. And of course I do believe that people who read this book will learn about the nature of the Universe, one of the deepest mysteries of modern science.

Who do you see as the audience for this book?

I have written The Cosmic Cocktail for the interested public as my audience. The book is both science and memoir. I am often asked, “Will I understand this book?” And my answer is yes. I think people are smart and interested in understanding their world. It is human nature to explore, and to ask questions about our Universe. I have not dumbed it down but I did definitely work to make it clear to the general public for whom this is not the field of study, not their area of expertise.

The book is lighthearted and fun and tells about the science of Dark Matter and also the personalities and personal stories of people involved. My goal is to share with people the excitement of doing science!

How did you come up with the title or jacket?

The Cosmic Cocktail is the perfect name for the book, as it is a recipe for the Universe —for what the Universe is made of. People find the answer very surprising. If we add up all the material of our daily experience — our bodies, the air, the walls, the vodka and gin, the stars and planets — all of that adds up to only 5% of the content of the Universe. The rest is the mysterious dark matter and dark energy that constitute the bulk of the Universe. The nature of the dark matter has been a major focus of my research and is the subject of this book.

What are you reading right now?

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. This book is a wonderful award-winning science fiction novel published in 2009. Set in the 23rd century, the book explores a dystopian future: most food has been genetically engineered to be sterile (with production controlled by a few powerful companies); carbon based energy has been used up and manually wound up springs are used instead; and a new humanoid life-form has been created, a “windup-girl.” The book is a great story and is very thought provoking.

What is your next project?

Dark stars. In 2007, my collaborators and I proposed the existence of a new kind of star, powered by dark matter annihilation rather than by fusion. We were inspired to call these objects “dark stars” after a song of the same name by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. The first stars that form in the history of the Universe, 200 million years after the Big Bang, reside in very dark matter-rich environments. Though the stars are made almost entirely of hydrogen and helium, a smattering of dark matter is enough to heat them and allow them to become very big and bright. They can grow to become a million times as massive as the Sun and a billion times as bright. The upcoming sequel to Hubble Space Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, will launch in 2018 and should be able to see them. We are now working on making predictions for what dark stars should look like in data taken by this space mission.

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Katherine Freese is the author of:

The Cosmic Cocktail The Cosmic Cocktail: Three Parts Dark Matter by Katherine Freese
Hardcover | 2014 | $29.95 / £19.95 | ISBN: 9780691153353
264 pp. | 6 x 9 | 15 color illus. 42 halftones. 31 line illus. | eBook | ISBN: 9781400850075 | Reviews Table of Contents Chapter 1[PDF]

PUP News of the World — June 6, 2014

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Each week we post a round-up of some of our most exciting national and international PUP book coverage. Reviews, interviews, events, articles–this is the spot for coverage of all things “PUP books” that took place in the last week. Enjoy!


THE COSMIC COCKTAIL

Shaken or stirred? When it comes to questions on all things dark matter, PUP author Katherine Freese’s new book is the perfect recipe. The Cosmic Cocktail: Three Parts Dark Matter is the inside story of the epic quest to solve one of the most compelling enigmas of modern science–what is the universe made of?–told by one of today’s foremost pioneers in the study of dark matter. Many cosmologists believe we are on the verge of solving the mystery. The Cosmic Cocktail provides the foundation needed to fully fathom this epochal moment in humankind’s quest to understand the universe.

The Washington Post reviewed The Cosmic Cocktail this week. Nancy Szokan writes:

Freese….tells a lively personal tale of her trajectory through the world of science….You end up thinking that being a physicist is certainly important and definitely difficult—but it could also be a lot of fun.

Freese’s book was also reviewed on the Space Review, and Nature ran a review, where Francis Halzen calls the book “clear and accessible” and “an excellent primer for the intrigued generalist, or for those who have spent too much time in particle-physics labs and want to catch up on what cosmologists are up to.”

Blending cutting-edge science with her own behind-the-scenes insights as a leading researcher in the field, acclaimed theoretical physicist Katherine Freese recounts the hunt for dark matter, from the discoveries of visionary scientists like Fritz Zwicky–the Swiss astronomer who coined the term “dark matter” in 1933–to the deluge of data today from underground laboratories, satellites in space, and the Large Hadron Collider. Read Chapter One of The Cosmic Cocktail here.

DELPHI

From outer space to ancient times, our next book takes us to the center of the ancient world. The oracle and sanctuary of the Greek god Apollo at Delphi were known as the “omphalos”–the “center” or “navel”–of the ancient world for more than 1000 years. Individuals, city leaders, and kings came from all over the Mediterranean and beyond to consult Delphi’s oracular priestess; to set up monuments to the gods in gold, ivory, bronze, marble, and stone; and to take part in athletic and musical competitions. Michael Scott’s Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World provides the first comprehensive narrative history of this extraordinary sanctuary and city, from its founding to its modern rediscovery, to show more clearly than ever before why Delphi was one of the most important places in the ancient world for so long.

The Guardian reviewed Delphi, and James Davidson writes:

The oracle is not the main concern of this fine, scholarly book. Although you can hardly write about Delphi without writing about the Pythia, Scott’s interest is much more in the site itself, the way it developed from a couple of buildings on a mountainside into the elaborate sanctuary of the classical period and beyond….Because Delphi was the focus of so much ancient attention, this rich but remote archaeological site gives us a keyhole view of the history of the ancient world as a whole, as cities are founded and proclaim their existence to the international community; as cities fall and find their monuments encroached on, buried or pecked at by prophetic crows; as dedications to commemorate victories over foreigners at Salamis give way to trophies of victories over other Greeks; as the Spartans inscribe their name on a gift of Croesus and hope no one will notice.

Delphi was also reviewed in the Ekathimerini, where Alex Clapp calls the book “an engaging tribute to a site that enjoined its visitors to know themselves – a demand that, in turn, requires us to know the Greeks.”

Check out the prologue of Delphi here.

WHY GOVERNMENT FAILS SO OFTEN

Why does government fail so often? With the VA scandal running front page, PUP author, lawyer, and political scientist Peter Schuck addresses the behind-the-scene issues in a recent Washington Post op-ed, entitled “The real problem with the VA? Congress.” He writes:

Another day, another scandal at the beleaguered Department of Veterans Affairs. The real scandal, however, is not just the cynical manipulation of waiting lists but also the agency’s routine failure to deliver benefits and services to those who desperately need them. This more systemic failure will become even clearer once the inspector general submits a final report to an irate White House and the Republicans and many Democrats pile on.

Read the full op-ed, and view Chapter One of Schuck’s new book, Why Government Fails So Often: And How It Can Do Better.

In his book, Schuck provides a wide range of examples and an enormous body of evidence to explain why so many domestic policies go awry–and how to right the foundering ship of state. Schuck argues that Washington’s failures are due not to episodic problems or partisan bickering, but rather to deep structural flaws that undermine every administration, Democratic and Republican. These recurrent weaknesses include unrealistic goals, perverse incentives, poor and distorted information, systemic irrationality, rigidity and lack of credibility, a mediocre bureaucracy, powerful and inescapable markets, and the inherent limits of law.

To counteract each of these problems, Schuck proposes numerous achievable reforms, from avoiding moral hazard in student loan, mortgage, and other subsidy programs, to empowering consumers of public services, simplifying programs and testing them for cost-effectiveness, and increasing the use of “big data.” The book also examines successful policies–including the G.I. Bill, the Voting Rights Act, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and airline deregulation–to highlight the factors that made them work.

Why Government Fails So Often was reviewed in the Shanghai Daily. The Federalist‘s William Voegeli also features the book in his recent column entitled “Buying People Stuff Doesn’t Mean You Care, VA Edition.”

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