Skip to main content

Particle Physics: a very short introduction – Frank Close ****

Frank Close packs in a lot of information in this “very short” introduction (notice there’s no promise about difficulty!). That is at once this book’s biggest strength and its potential challenge. The reader who picks it up expecting a breezy, bird’s-eye-view of particle physics is in for a surprise. But if you stick with it, your efforts will be amply rewarded. In ten concise, albeit dense, chapters, Close covers everything from the basic scale of fundamental particles and forces and the three families of matter to quantum chromodynamics, the origins of mass, and even more esoteric subjects like dark matter.
The first four chapters are a particular delight. One of Close’s strengths is his ability to make extremely large or small quantities relatable by using apt analogies and by carefully explaining the units physicists use, such as electron volts. His writing is consistently accessible, unassuming and fun in a wry sort of way, but you never get the sense that he is dumbing down the subject matter or taking the sorts of shortcuts that lead to misunderstandings. These chapters serve as an admirable mini-introduction in their own right.
I have to admit that the fifth and sixth chapters, though worthwhile, occasionally tried my patience: these focus heavily on the history and development of particle accelerators and detectors. While I agree that covering the experimental side of particle physics is necessary in order to understand its current state, Close’s descriptions of cyclotrons, synchrotons, linear accelerators, emulsions, bubble and spark chambers, neutrino detectors and the likes could have benefitted from less historical detail, which is interesting but not essential.
In thinking about the book’s four last chapters, it’s inevitable to point out that these were written before the LHC discovered the Higgs boson in July 2012, so there is some speculation about the LHC that an updated edition would remove or replace. One wonders too, based on what we now know, whether speculative ideas such as supersymmetry, for which we have yet to find any experimental confirmation, might be de-emphasized. But these minor quibbles don’t detract much from an engaging and rigorous discussion of the standard model, antimatter and questions that remain open. Close’s clear, balanced approach is to be applauded. I should also point out that there are plenty of helpful diagrams and tables – as well as a few equations – throughout.
It seems only fair to acknowledge that rating this book using stars may seem a bit prosaic, given its subject matter. So I will translate this rating into particle physics terms: On a pentaquark (they haven’t been confirmed experimentally yet, but exist hypothetically) scale of book rating, I award this volume two positively charged K mesons. And if that just has you scratching your head, I encourage you to pick up this excellent primer.
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Audio download:  
Review by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Adam Roberts - Four Way Interview

Adam Roberts is commonly described as one of the UK's most important writers of SF. He is the author of numerous novels and literary parodies. He is Professor of 19th Century Literature at Royal Holloway, London University, and has written a number of critical works on both SF and 19th Century poetry. His latest novel is The Real-Town Murders.

Why science fiction?

Because it's the best thing in the world. I work for the University of London, which is to say: in effect, I'm paid to read books (and teach them, and write about them) and that means I read a lot of books; and that means you can believe me when I say that SF/Fantasy, and especially (even though it's not something I write) YA SF/Fantasy, is where all the most exciting writing is happening nowadays. You might wonder why I think so: but that's a whole other question, and you've already used up your four ...

Why this book?

So, I came across an account of one of Alfred Hitchcock's (many) unfinished projec…

UFO Drawings from the National Archives - David Clarke ***

This is a lovely little book that, sadly, not every reader will see the point of. If somebody’s anecdotal account of a presumed alien encounter is obviously a misperception of a mundane occurrence, or else too vague – or too far-fetched – to be taken seriously, then it’s all too easy to dismiss it as worthless. But that’s missing the point. The fact that so many incidents are reported in these terms makes the witnesses’ testimony worthy of serious study – to teach us, not about extraterrestrial civilisations, but about our own culture.

That was the core message of David Clarke’s excellent How UFOs Conquered the World published a couple of years ago. Now Clarke is back with another take on the same basic theme.  His day job is Reader and Principal Lecturer in Journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, but for the last ten years he’s also acted as consultant for the National Archives project to release all of Britain’s official Ministry of Defence (MoD) files on UFOs. Throughout the Cold…

Crashing Heaven (SF) - Al Robertson ****

There's an engaging mix of powerful thriller and science fiction in this impressive novel. After the Earth has been rendered uninhabitable, human life is limited to vast space station. Our central character, Jack, has a symbiotic artificial intelligence, Hugo Fist, designed to destroy other AIs in a mysterious collective that is said to have committed an atrocity - but with a kick in the tail that because of an unbreakable contract, Fist will take over Jack's body in a few weeks' time.

Al Robertson packs remarkable technology concepts into the cyber side of this story, from AI corporations that act as a pantheon of gods to the 'puppet' that is Fist (he usually come across as a virtual cross between Mr Punch and an evil ventriloquist's dummy). Robertson does all the cyber stuff so well that it's easy to miss that this is, in effect, a myth in electronic clothing - you could substitute the myths of 'real' Greek gods and magic for what happens here. Alt…