book reviews

The End of Everything by Katie Mack – Gordon Weir
The Unfinished Palazzo by Judith Mackrell – Cathy Bell

                                                                      The end of everything

When Katie Mack says ‘everything’ she really does mean everything, in as much as what she describes, with quite a bit of humour, is the end of the universe and everything in it. The content, made all the more enjoyable by Mack’s own evident enthusiasm for cosmology, includes various theories which attempt to describe how the universe will end. Also included, are descriptions, based on our current understanding, of how the universe works; in some respects, a level of understanding which is still in its infancy. A little quantum mechanics is also thrown in for good effect and alongside references to Star Trek, The Big Bang Theory and Battlestar Galactica, which I far prefer to, people like Carlo Rovelli (another physics writer), who, confusingly for me, quotes the Roman poet Horace at the beginning of each chapter. The overall result is an extremely up to date, entertaining, very readable modern take on the current state of this part of astrophysics.

So, I hear you ask, how will it all end and should we just leave the washing out and not bother about saving for next Christmas? Fortunately, the end is not that soon – or maybe not! Best read on before making a decision about the washing.

Many people are now aware of where, and roughly when, the universe began; as a singularity (a point or area of infinite density) that sort of exploded (The Big Bang) and has been stretching out in all directions for around 13.8 billion years. A word of caution however! Much about the early universe, and indeed the universe today, is open to debate. The reality is no one knows exactly what happened and exactly what is going to happen. Mack is definitely open to such debate and this, in itself, is something which makes you warm to her personality and her style of writing.

Scenario number one is The Big Crunch. We’ll know well in advance if this is our fate as we will first of all notice that the rate of expansion of the universe is slowing down. This though, will be something we notice well after it has begun, due to the time taken for the light from such far-off objects, such as stars and galaxies, to reach us. This will, however, begin to happen well after the galaxy Andromeda, which is at this moment hurtling towards us, has crashed into the Milky Way; a sort of a small-scale rehearsal for what is to come. Good news is that this ‘small’ collision between two galaxies it is not expected to affect our own solar system. Bad news is that earth will already have been swallowed up by an expanding, dying sun. Once the expansion of the universe has stopped, the next step is for the universe to begin contracting. Galaxies will get closer, eventually crashing into each other, setting off brilliant light shows for anyone around to watch, and super massive black holes, found at the centre of galaxies, will come together resulting in huge explosions of previously dormant gases, jets of energetic particles and spacetime distorting gravitational waves. And the end? A singularity; and possibly another big bang.


The idea around Heat Death is not what it sounds, instead it is about the death of heat or, to put it another way, everything getting colder and colder. To be more accurate, what it really describes is the time when entropy has reached its maximum value – when there are  no longer any more sources of heat. The reason that the universe is expanding at an ever-faster rate – the further away an object is in the night sky the faster it is receding away from us – is due to Dark Energy. What Dark Energy is, nobody knows, other than we can’t see it and that it appears to have an anti-gravity type effect; pushing matter away as opposed to attracting it. The result is that distances between galaxies and stars are increasing at such an incredible rate, that, one day, when a galaxy dies, it will be utterly alone in the darkness of that part of the universe with nothing nearby to bring in a new source of fuel to bring to life new stars. Stars will burn out and die, black holes will not survive much longer, eventually evaporating to nothingness. Even, in a very long time, the particles that make up matter itself will decay and no longer exist, leaving nothing but emptiness and darkness, no life, nothing.

The expansion due to Dark Energy is often described as a sort of cosmological constant that somehow determines the rate of expansion. According to Mack, the cosmological constant has a value. The value, based on the density and pressure of the universe, is   -1, a value consistent with an accelerating expansion of the universe. Mack writes that, according to some theories, if the value of the cosmological constant were to change by as little as one part per million, then this would result in dark energy tearing the universe apart. The Big Rip, as it is known, will not, for various reasons, become a possible final outcome for at least 100 billion years; by which time everything will already have decayed.

The three possibilities above are so far into the future that, although interesting, they should certainly not make us worry. The Earth, if it still existed, which of course it will not, would explode just 1 hour before The Big Rip. The next possible outcome, however, could happen at any time. The story begins shortly after the Big Bang itself when previously massless particles interacted with the Higgs Field to obtain mass. The strength of the interaction determining the particles mass. The photon, for example, which does not interact with the Higgs Field, remains massless. The point at which previously massless particles obtained mass is known as the electroweak symmetry breaking process. The point at which the Higgs Field sits, giving particles mass and therefore our own existence, is referred to as the Higgs Vacuum or Vacuum State. The state allows particles to come together to form molecules, structures and chemical processes essential to life. The problem is that the Higgs Field is not exactly where it wants to be. Instead it wants to occupy its lowest possible energy state and, at the moment, physicists belief it is not there. The issue for the Higgs Field, is that it is stuck in a ‘hole’ and is unable to jump out of the ‘hole’ into its lower energy state. In effect, the field needs a huge amount of energy in the first place to transition from where it is to its new low energy state. Such energy may come from somewhere in the universe as the result of a massive explosion or the evaporation of a black hole. Although the field may at first be changed only on a local level, its effect would quickly spread producing, “an unstoppable apocalyptic cascade that nothing in the universe could withstand.” The result would be the instant decay of all particles with mass. A crumb of comfort, regarding Vacuum Decay, is that if the quantum fluctuations of the early universe during its inflationary period (a time when the universe grew by a huge amount in a fraction of a second, before returning to a slower rate of expansion) and the heat afterwards was not enough to achieve a shift to a lower energy level, then perhaps nothing else can.


The final possibility put forward by Mack has to do with gravity and why it is so weak. How weak? Every time you pick up your cup of tea or coffee (doesn’t matter which!) you are overcoming the gravitational attraction of an entire planet. In other words, one thing we know about the force of gravity is that it is very weak - far weaker than the other known forces. One theory is that gravity is somehow leaking. Leaking where you might ask. One theory is that gravity is leaking into another dimension. A dimension (or dimensions) where other universes co-exist with our own. The universes, known as branes, exist, in the main independently of one another, each with its one set of forces governing how things work on each brane.


That is, except for gravity, which is able to travel freely across the bulk in which the branes reside, going from brane to brane, universe to universe. The possibility may also exist of gravity in some form, say gravitational waves, being able to carry signals between branes. All very interesting but what is the catch (remember what this book is about!)? The theory goes that what we know as the big bang was in fact a collision between two branes and that such a collision will happen again and again as branes bounce of one another over and over again. If this is true, then we have already had several big bangs and just as many cataclysmic endings and who knows, the next collision could be just round the corner.

Mack concludes with a look at what the future may hold and how we may better understand the universe in which we live. We are learning all the time and along the way we have had to change our view, based on better and more data or simply someone coming along with a better, more persuasive argument. Mack clearly loves what she does and seems to prefer living at a time when we don’t have all the answers and we haven’t (at the time of writing anyway!) been ripped apart by dark energy. And Mack’s last word on the subject? Cool!

Katie Mack is a theoretical cosmologist and Assistant Professor at North Carolina State University. She achieved her PhD from Princeton University in 2009. Her current research includes the investigation of dark matter and vacuum decay. Mack is also a regular contributor to Scientific America.




The Unfinished Palazzo tells the story of the three women who inhabited the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni in Venice during the first half of the twentieth-century. The palazzo was known locally as “Il palazzo non finito” due to the fact that the Venier family who began building it suffered a financial set-back during the building project and the plans were aborted in 1780. Nevertheless, there was still enough surviving of the building to be of interest to buyers, not least the waterfront terrace which remained intact and the wonderful view of Venice. So, not surprisingly in 1910 the palazzo was taken over by a wealthy  Italian woman, the Marchesa Luisa Casati . The three women to inhabit the building during this period were Luisa, Lady Doris Castlerosse and Peggy Guggenheim, Luisa furnished it with dreams, Doris had it “done up” and Peggy filled it with modern art. The author Judith Mackrell is the dance critic for the Guardian newspaper and this comes across in her tale telling as the narrative displays a kind of forward moving rhythm, a sense of movement and drama that propels it along at a dancing pace. Even though it is a reasonably long book (388 pages) it is never a boring read, there is always so much happening and the lives of each woman are fascinating in different ways.

Starting with Luisa Casati, she was an incredibly rich Italian aristocrat from Milan who became known as a living work of art. It is worth reading this book to enjoy the descriptions of her escapades, her incredible extravagance of appearance and her totally self-absorbed way of seeking the attention of others. Luisa courted the writers and artists of the period such as the Futurist artist Filippo Marinetti and American photographer and artist Man Ray who famously took a strange photograph of her called “The Surrealist Medusa” in 1922. She had many romances and lovers, however, the love of her life seems to have been the Italian writer and aesthete Gabriele D’Annunzio whom she allegedly met while they were out hunting.

Her riding skills had impressed D’Annunzio, seeing her as a “young slender Amazon showing admirable control of her mount as she’d galloped through the “golden bronze” of the Lombardy countryside”. It can only be recommended that to discover the incredible story of the life of Luisa and her career as a human work of art, this book needs to be read. Despite such an extraordinary and colourful life, however, she spent her last years living in a tiny flat in Knightsbridge in London. Her wealth had now gone because a Parisian coal-merchant to whom she had owed 29,000 francs was responsible for having her declared bankrupt. Luisa had no conception of money since she had been brought up from birth in privileged circumstances. Even though she was oblivious to reality she lead a fascinating life and often dazzled those around her, especially the Venetian residents who would witness Luisa parade around the city outrageously dressed with her man servant stripped to the waist and painted gold, or riding in a gondola with her pet cheetah.


The next occupant of the palazzo was an English woman called Lady Doris Castlerosse (nee. Delevingne), Doris was the great-aunt of the actress and model Cara Delevingne. To some extent, Doris was only interested in the palazzo as a backdrop for her society parties. She had the reputation as a great seducer and her marriage to Viscount Valentine Castlerosse allowed her the wealth and contacts to live a lavish lifestyle which included the purchase of the palazzo which was actually bought for her by the wealthy American lesbian Margot Flick Hoffman with whom she had an affair. Doris also had an affair with the celebrated photographer Cecil Beaton which was doomed to failure since Beaton was in love with a man called Peter Watson. Nevertheless, Beaton took the best photograph of Doris to appear in the book, taken in the early 1930’s, it shows her looking beautiful draped elegantly across a chair. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Doris is that she also had an affair with Winston Churchill just prior to WW2. Churchill had set her up in a luxury flat in London where he visited her occasionally. Unfortunately, as with Luisa, Doris spent her final years living in a small flat in London in diminished circumstances.


Last but not least to reside in the palazzo was Peggy Guggenheim. Peggy was an American heiress whose father Benjamin Guggenheim was aboard RMS Titanic and was drowned when it sank in 1912. Although the family was rich, it was the case that they were not the richest side of the extended family, Peggy’s uncle Solomon, for example, was wealthier and he was responsible for the Solomon Guggenheim Museum in New York which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Peggy seemed to be on a quest to emulate her uncle and indeed surpass him as an art collector. Her life was fascinating with  a series of marriages and affairs with such names as the Irish writer Samuel Beckett and the Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg as known lovers, to Marcel Duchamp as a friend and Max Ernst the German surrealist artist as a husband. This is a particularly interesting account of a marriage which distinctly comes across as a marriage of convenience – for Ernst that is.  Sadly, Ernst appears to have used Peggy for her money and her contacts in the art world, she was also on hand to help him escape the war in Europe and settle in the US. It would seem that Ernst was not genuinely devoted to Peggy and the marriage ended at his earliest convenience. Another user of Peggy seems to have been the American Abstract Expressionist artist Jackson Pollock who was promoted by Peggy to great effect. He does not seem to have acknowledged her role in his success and, at one point in the book, he is quoted as saying an unkind comment about her physical appearance.


Despite all the drama of Peggy’s life, not least her difficult relationship with her children, she allowed her passion for modern art to flourish. And, as a testament to the dedication of this collector (and rescuer from the Nazis) of modern art, Il palazzo non finito (even the unfinished bits) is still there for all to see and is now known as the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.