Skip to main content

The Infinity Puzzle – Frank Close ****

This is a really important popular science book if you are interested in physics, because it covers some of the important bits of modern physics that most of us science writers are too afraid to write about. Starting with renormalization in QED, the technique used to get rid of the unwanted infinities that plagued the early versions of the theory and moving on to the weak force, the massive W and Z bosons, the Higgs business and the development of the concept of quarks and some aspects of the theory covering the strong force that holds them in place, it contains a string of revelations that I have never seen covered to any degree in a popular text elsewhere.
Take that renormalization business. I have seen (and written) plenty of passing references to this, but never seen a good explanation of what the problem with infinities was really about, or how the renormalization was achieved and justified. Frank Close does this. Similarly I hadn’t realised that Murray Gell-Mann, the man behind the ‘quark’ name, originally took a similar view to quarks as Planck did to quanta – a mathematical trick to get the right answer that didn’t reflect anything real in terms of the particles involved.
For at least the first half of the book I was determined to give it five stars, despite itself. The content was sufficiently important and infrequently covered to require this. That ‘despite itself’ is because this is no light read – it makes the infamously frequently unfinished Brief History of Time seem a piece of cake. I think the reason for this is that the concepts here are more alien to the reader than those typically met in traditional ‘hard’ topics like relativity or quantum theory. Close does define a term like gauge invariance before using it, but then keeps using it for chapter after chapter. The trouble is, to the author this is an everyday concept, but to the reader the words are practically meaningless (unlike, say space and time in relativity), so a couple of pages on from the definition we’ve forgotten what it means and get horribly lost. These aspects (spontaneous symmetry breaking is another example) would have benefited hugely from a more detailed explanation and then use of more approachable terms along the way rather than what can be a highly opaque jargon.
I could forgive the author this though. After all his writing style is fine and there is all that interesting content. But there were a couple of things that dragged the book down a little for me. The first was a tendency to skip over bits of science, leaving them mysterious. For example, at one point we are told that a process can be split into five categories: scalar, pseudo-scalar, tensor, vector and axial. Of these only vector and scalar are defined (there are brief definitions in the end notes, but nothing in the main text), so when we are told that the weak force was classified as V-A, we have no clue what this means as we don’t know what axial means, or the significance of the minus sign. This is Rutherfordian stamp collecting, giving us labels without understanding the meaning.
Worse though, and the dominant part of the second half of the book, was that there was just far too much dissecting exactly who contributed exactly what little component to the theory, and who got the Nobel prize for what, and who didn’t get it, despite deserving it. Frankly, this is too much of an insider’s idea of what’s important. We don’t really care. I wish this had been omitted, leaving room for more handholding on the theory.
The trouble is, there were far too many people involved to get any successful human interest going in the story. Nobel prizes of themselves don’t make people interesting. I have two scientific heroes in the last 100 years – Richard Feynman and Fred Hoyle. (Obviously I’m in awe of the work of many others – Einstein, say – but this misses the point.) In that same period there must have been getting on for 300 Nobel prize winners in physics alone. I’m interested in their work, but I can’t get too excited about them as people. Those who criticise popular science for being too driven by the stories of a few individuals when so many have contributed miss the point. You can only have so many heroes.
Overall this remain a really important book if you want to get to grips with modern particle physics and quantum field theory. It fills in lots of gaps that other books gloss over. But it would be remiss of me not to also point out my concerns.
Hardback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I, Mammal - Liam Drew *****

It's rare that a straightforward biology book (with a fair amount of palaeontology thrown in) really grabs my attention, but this one did. Liam Drew really piles in the surprising facts (often surprising to him too) and draws us a wonderful picture of the various aspects of mammals that make them different from other animals. 

More on this in a moment, but I ought to mention the introduction, as you have to get past it to get to the rest, and it might put you off. I'm not sure why many books have an introduction - they often just get in the way of the writing, and this one seemed to go on for ever. So bear with it before you get to the good stuff, starting with the strange puzzle of why some mammals have external testes.

It seems bizarre to have such an important thing for passing on the genes so precariously posed - and it's not that they have to be, as it's not the case with all mammals. Drew mixes his own attempts to think through this intriguing issue with the histor…

Foolproof - Brian Hayes *****

The last time I enjoyed a popular maths book as much as this one was reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions as a teenager. The trouble with a lot of ‘fun’ maths books is that they cover material that mathematicians consider fascinating, such as pairs of primes that are only two apart, which fail to raise much excitement in normal human beings. 

Here, all the articles have something a little more to them. So, even though Brian Hayes may be dealing with something fairly abstruse-sounding like the ratio of the volume of an n-dimensional hypersphere to the smallest hypercube that contains it, the article always has an interesting edge - in this case that although the ‘volume’ of the hypersphere grows up to the fifth dimension it gets smaller and smaller thereafter, becoming an almost undetectable part of the hypercube.

If that doesn’t grab you, many articles in this collection aren’t as abstruse, covering everything from random walks to a strange betting game. What'…

A Galaxy of Her Own - Libby Jackson ****

This is an interesting book, even if it probably tries to be too many things to too many people. I wondered from the cover design whether it was a children's book, but the publisher's website (and the back of the book) resolutely refuse to categorise it as such. The back copy doesn't help by saying that it will 'inspire trailblazers and pioneers of all ages.' As I belong to the set 'all ages' I thought I'd give it a go.

Inside are featured the 'stories of fifty inspirational women who have been fundamental to the story of humans in space.' So, in some ways, A Galaxy of Her Own presents the other side of the coin to Angela Saini's excellent Inferior. But, inevitably, given the format, it can hardly provide the same level of discourse.

Despite that 'all ages' comment and the lack of children's book labelling we get a bit of a hint when we get to a bookplate page in the form of a Galaxy Pioneers security pass (with the rather worrying…