Take Modern Cosmology with a Billion Grains of Salt Series:

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THE RUNAWAY UNIVER

THE RACE TO FIND THE FUTURE OF THE COSMOS By Donald Goldsmith Perseus Books 232 pp., $25

If you like "The X-Files," you'll love cosmology. Like TV's dogged hero, scientists probing the nature of our universe are driven by faith that the truth is out there. Uncertainties frustrate them. Errors plague them. Key information seems just beyond their grasp. Yet they progress.

The second millennium has not left humanity's quest to know the cosmos where it found it. Concepts shaped by superstition and dogma have yielded to hypotheses based on natural law and constrained by astronomical observations and laboratory experiments. But mystery and wonder are not outmoded. The concept of our universe suddenly appearing in an explosion of primordial energy some 14 billion years ago seems as "far out" as any medieval miracle.

The last few years, in particular, have brought the awesome insight that our universe may be running away with itself. It isn't just undergoing an expansion from that primordial blast. The expansion appears to be accelerating. If so, it's probably driven by a fudge factor that Einstein originally added to his general relativity equation and then removed. He called it his greatest blunder. It may be essential to his theory after all.

That's the theme of this interesting book. And who better to tell it than an astronomer-turned-science writer who has lived with this unfolding story for decades. Yes, he has the bias of a cosmology buff. But he also knows the limitations of cosmic exploration and where the intellectual pitfalls lie. The large grain of salt with which he advises readers to take our present state of knowledge brings out the true flavor of the tale.

The last century advanced the cosmic story more than all previous intellectual history. Cosmologists can explain how our universe arose out of nowhere in a way that conforms to experiments with subatomic particles and to our present understanding of quantum physics. But they are as ignorant as any medieval mystic as to why this should have happened. …