Skip to main content

Symmetry and the Beautiful Universe – Leon Lederman & Christopher Hill ****

Although it won’t appeal to everyone, as I will explain in a moment, I think it’s fair to say this is one of most valuable popular science books I have ever read. Symmetry is at the heart of much modern physics, but it is generally concealed under the surface, and when it has to emerge, for example when talking about the standard model of particle physics, every book I have ever read on the subject fails to explain the subject properly. This book doesn’t quite make it, but it is by far the closest I have ever seen to a comprehensible explanation.
Nobel laureate Leon Lederman (the man behind the dreaded ‘God particle’ term) and his usual co-author Christopher Hill pack a huge amount of information into this slim paperback. We begin with an exploration of symmetry itself, bring in the laws of physics, meet Emmy Noether in some detail and specifically her concept that each of the conservation laws corresponds to an underlying symmetry. From there Lederman and Hill bring in classical physics, and particularly inertia, relativity, broken symmetry, quantum physics, local gauge invariance and QED, quarks and QCD, the standard model and the Higgs field. It is a huge achievement just how much of this they get in, and how approachable most of it is with a bit of work.
As that suggests, there is a price to pay for the reader. If you are totally equation averse, you will have problems because there are a lot of them. They are always relatively simple and well explained, but the pages are littered with them (which presents a different problem, as we will discover in a moment). This is a book you will have to work a little bit to read, perhaps occasionally re-reading a section to get the full meaning, but it will be so well worth it.
I just have two issues with the book. Although Lederman and Hill almost make the application of symmetry and gauge theories comprehensible there is one huge gap, where the authors say ‘let’s change something to randomly to have any value as we move through time and space.’ They build the whole explanation of gauge theory on this (this is the first book, by the way, I’ve seen that properly explains where that word ‘gauge’ comes in) – yet as presented it makes no sense. They give no reason why we are asked to choose random values, rather than sticking with a smoothly changing value, or making some other arbitrary decision. Because of this there’s a feeling that your understanding is built on sand. There is also a certain weakness in their historical content – they reproduce the myth that Bruno was burned for his scientific beliefs unquestioningly, for instance.
The other issue is the quality of the physical book itself. I am very careful with books when I read them – paperbacks usually still look brand new with no creases etc. But by the time I had reached the end, half the pages had come away from the spine. I can live with that, but worse still, the book seemed not to have been proof read. Any book has a few typos or small errors that slip through. You can’t spot everything. But page after page there were equations where a character (often the multiply sign, or the Greek letter phi) was replaced with a question mark. It made them much harder to read, the last thing you need with equations in a popular science book. I can’t understand how the publisher or the authors could fail to spot such a glaring error at the proof stage.
Nonetheless an important and hugely informative book on a subject that is at the heart of modern physics but has rarely been comprehensibly explained. Recommended.

Paperback 

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Infinity Plus: Quintet (SF) - Keith Brooke (Ed.) ****

When I was younger there was nothing I liked better than a good, deep, dark (frankly, often downright miserable) science fiction story, and this collection delivers excellent modern examples that would have fit easily into a thoughtful if downbeat 70s collection such as the 'New Writing in SF' or the Interzone magazine of the day (one was actually first published in Interzone, in 1987 - the rest date between 1989 and 2010).

If I'm honest, I prefer more upbeat fiction now, but that doesn't stop me appreciating the quality of these five stories, put together by the SF website and publisher Infinity Plus. I've rarely seen a better contradiction of Margaret Atwood's putdown of science fiction as being limited to 'talking squids in outer space.' What we have here is pure character-driven storytelling with not a mention of space, spaceships, ray guns or aliens. It's the inner world, not the outer trappings of sci fi tropes that interest these writers.

On…

The Lost Planets - John Wenz **

Reading the first few lines of the introduction to this book caused a raised eyebrow. In 1600, it tells us, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake 'for his radical views - that not only was the Sun just one of many stars, but those stars likely had planets around them as well.' Unfortunately, this bends the truth. Bruno was burned at the stake for holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith - for conventional heretical beliefs amongst which his ideas on cosmology were trivial. This was an unfortunate start.

What John Wenz gives us is a people-driven story of the apparent early discovery of a number of planets orbiting other stars, made by Peter van de Kamp and his colleagues at Swarthmore College in America, most notably connected to a relatively obscure star called Barnard's star. Wenz is at his best dealing with personal conflict. The book really comes alive in a middle section where van de Kamp's discoveries are starting to be challenged. This chapter works wel…

Bone Silence (SF) - Alastair Reynolds *****

Of all the best modern SF writers, Alastair Reynolds is arguably the supreme successor to the writers of the golden age. He gives us wide-ranging vision, clever concepts and rollicking adventure - never more so than with his concluding book of the Ness sisters trilogy.

Neatly, after the first title, Revenger was written from the viewpoint of one sister, Arafura and the second, Shadow Captain, had the other sister Adrana as narrator, this book is in the third person. It neatly ties up many of the loose ends from the previous books, but also leaves vast scope for revelations to cover in the future if Reynolds decides to revisit this world (he comments in his acknowledgements 'I am, for the time being, done with the Ness sisters. Whether they are done with me remains to be seen.')

As with the previous books, the feel here is in some ways reminiscent of the excellent TV series Firefly, but with pirates rather than cowboys transported into a space setting. Set millions of years in…