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Chapter One: 2001

"He was moving through a new order of creation of which few men ever dreamed. Beyond the realms of sea and land and air and space lay the realms of fire, which he alone had been privileged to glimpse. It was much too much to expect that he would also understand."
—Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey


Two boys sit in darkened cinemas, one in London and one in Miami, set to watch Stanley Kubrick's movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is 1968, a year of worldwide conflict and turmoil: Vietnam, the arms race, political assassinations, student protests, and rebellions. But all this is forgotten as the film sweeps the boys along in a glorious tale of science, space, and the future.

The boy in Miami witnessed firsthand the awesome power of technology to annihilate or inspire. Six years earlier, from his home near Homestead Air Force Base, he watched missiles being prepared for a strike on Cuba, knowing that his family and community would be obliterated if the looming crisis led to a nuclear exchange. Then, as the crisis subsided, he became galvanized by John F. Kennedy’s promise to send a man to the Moon by the end of the decade. He emerged from these early experiences optimistic about the power of technology to improve the future and fascinated by all things scientific. He kept logbooks of every manned mission and traveled often to Cape Canaveral to observe the launches. He turned the family garage into a laboratory with large stocks of chemicals and biological specimens. And he headed to the Everglades at night, avoiding the city lights and fending off mosquitoes, to take a peek at the heavens through his telescope.

The boy in London was a refugee from South Africa, where his parents had been imprisoned for resisting the oppressive apartheid regime. But he too was optimistic, having seen the determination of people like Nelson Mandela to build a better future. Upon his parents’ release, the family had left South Africa for Kenya and then Tanzania, new countries full of natural wonders—the Serengeti’s wild animals and the Olduvai Gorge, home of the earliest humans. Under the hot African sun the boy had learned mathematics and science from spirited young teachers. He’d built electric motors, made explosions, and watched ant lions for hours. In 1968 his family had moved to England for the sake of the children's education, arriving in time to watch the Apollo moon landings on TV.

As young children, both boys had acquired their passion for science from their fathers. Each night, the father in America told stories to his little boy of Marie Curie, Louis Pasteur, and other great discoverers. The father in Africa patiently explained the Pythagorean theorem and spoke of the great achievements of ancient Greek science. Their words were like water on seeds, feeding insatiable curiosities. How does the world work? How did it start out? Where is it headed? The boys asked the same questions that have gripped people from every society every culture, every religion, and every continent since civilization began.

Kubrick’s film speaks of a time in the foreseeable future when people will devote their skills and resources to uncovering the secrets of the universe. A space mission is dispatched to investigate a powerful signal emanating from one of Jupiter’s moons. Technology, in the form of the computer HAL, threatens to end the mission, but human ingenuity and adaptability win out. A lone surviving astronaut arrives to find a giant monolith, appearing like a solid rock two thousand feet high. As he approaches, he realizes that it’s actually the opening of an infinite shaft, drawing him into a transdimensional trip through hyperspace and revealing the creation and the future of the universe. Watching the film, neither boy realizes how prophetic this story might be.


A Real Space Odyssey

Fast–forward to the real 2001: rather than a lone astronaut, a worldwide community of cosmologists engaged in an intense effort to understand the beginning of the universe. The two of us, now grown, are thrilled to be among them. The boy in Miami, Paul Steinhardt, is now a professor of mathematical physics at Princeton University. The boy in London, Neil Turok, is a professor of physics at Cambridge University in England. Each of us, following his own path, has pursued his dream of becoming an explorer of the universe, albeit with paper and pencil instead of a rocketship. Three years have passed since the two of us joined forces on a risky venture to investigate a new, transdimensional view of space and time that challenges the conventional history of the universe.

Cosmologists celebrate 2001 as the year the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launched a satellite mission from Cape Canaveral to investigate not the black monolith of Kubrick’s film but a thin, dark layer of space at the outermost edge of the visible universe. The mission is called WMAP (pronounced “W-map,”), which stands for Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe. On board is a ….

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