Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Deep Down Things – Bruce A. Schumm ***

I was looking forward to reading this, as it’s difficult to find a treatment of the Standard Model of particle physics that is both thorough and accessible, and this is exactly what Bruce Schumm aims to provide in Deep Down Things. Unfortunately, it ends up being a little too technical in parts, and ultimately I don’t think I can justify giving it more than three stars. But I do like this book, and it’s definitely worth a look.
Schumm builds up to a long discussion of gauge theory, and since this is rarely touched on in popular science books, the coverage is useful. The amount of detail Schumm goes into here, however, makes it necessary for him to first give the reader a detailed grounding in the Schrödinger wave equation, internal symmetry spaces and Lie groups. Schumm is quite good in these earlier sections at defining the important ideas and concepts. But the level of understanding he then encourages the reader to reach means that it can be easy to get lost amongst the specialist language, and it’s sometimes difficult to follow the explanations. The chapter on group theory is the best example of this. It is intended to introduce the main aspects of the theory to those who haven’t come across it before, but unless the reader is already fairly familiar with the material, they are likely to have to read through everything twice or three times before being able to move on.
This is a shame, because there are other parts of the book where Schumm’s style of writing is incredibly approachable and where he is quite funny. At points, he gives the reader very useful analogies and exercises to carry out that give a good feel for some of the trickier concepts. And the Feynman diagrams used a lot are generally very useful and help clarify what’s being talked about.
Unfortunately, there’s little on the people involved in developing the ideas underpinning the Standard Model, and given that the science is often quite challenging, it would have been good to be able to have a break from it here and there. I would have liked to read a lot more about Emmy Noether, for instance, a German mathematician whose theorem is relevant to the section on symmetries. As Schumm explains, she ended up being one of the greatest mathematicians in history, but only after having to fight hard against the prejudices of her misogynistic contemporaries.
All in all, however, though this is probably best for physics undergraduates, it would be a shame if no-one else read it. If you like a challenge and you are willing to persevere with this, you’re likely to get a lot out of it and be rewarded with a good understanding of the Standard Model at the end. Just be aware that it can be a struggle in parts.
Review by Matt Chorley

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