Skip to main content

The Lightness of Being - Frank Wilczek ****

I need to start this review with two clarifications and a proviso. The first clarification is that this quite an old book (2008), but someone just brought it to my attention. The second clarification is about the book's title. It's not about 'The lightness of being Frank Wilczek', that's just an unfortunate choice of title. The proviso is about the four star rating. This, to me, is a very mixed book. It does two things brilliantly, and quite a lot of other things not very well. If you are interested in modern physics, particularly particle physics and quantum field theory, though, it is a must-read.

Let's get the brilliant things in first. One of the baffling things about physics when you get into quarks and gluons as the constituents of particles like protons and neutrons is that the strong force that holds them together appears to be almost non-existent when the are close, but grows to be extremely strong when they try to separate (and then pretty much disappears a little further apart). As a result of this we've never seen raw, naked quarks, even though the evidence for their existence is good.

The section of the book that covers the theoretical reasoning for the existence of quarks, the experimental evidence we have for them and how this strange topsy-turvey force works the way it does (and, by the way, gives protons and neutrons 95% of their mass - take that, Higgs!) is excellent. It's by far the best explanation I've ever seen. Not entirely surprising when you realise that Frank Wilczek won his Nobel Prize for 'the discovery of asymptotic freedom in the theory of the strong interaction.' And asymptotic freedom is the rather clumsy name (Wilczek apologies for it in the book) for this odd way that the force increases as the quarks try to separate.

The other reason this book is excellent is that it gives a real insight into the kind of mental world modern theoretical physicists occupy. Once Wilczek gets going on what he calls 'the Grid' (because, he says, 'the Matrix' was spoiled as a name by the sequel movies), he is both dazzling and worrying. You might have thought that the ether went out with Maxwell and Einstein, but Wilczek shows how quantum field theorists postulate a whole multilayered collection of ethers filling space, from the assorted quantum fields to strange concepts of universe-filling condensates. I don't know if it's the impression he intended to give, but it really did come across to me as if modern theoretical physicists live in a fantasy world of mathematics which only occasionally touches base with reality when it happens to fit rather well with specific observations. The intention was, I think to show how this viewpoint is inevitable, but instead what comes across to me it that it feels like an abstraction with inevitable parallels with reality but that feels horribly like a house of cards.

Less effective are Wilczek's explanations once he gets away from quarks. I think I understand symmetry, at least to undergraduate physics level, but Wilczek's example that was supposed to show how symmetry worked for beginners totally lost me once he started talking about squeezing the sides of triangles. This, and much of the field theory explanations came across as someone who understood the topic so well that he didn't understand how to explain it to people who don't. It was more like a magician waving his hands at the end of a trick and saying 'So that's how it's done,' without revealing the actual mechanism.

Another slight problem was the writing style which tended to a kind of pompous joviality that I found rather wearing. Here's an example:
So: fully aware of the difficulties but undaunted, heroes of physics gird their loins, apply for grants, buy clusters of computers, solder, program, debug, even think - whatever it takes to wrest answers from the Grid pandemonium.
It's bearable, but hard work sometimes. So a definite recommendation, but with some significant reservations. You have been warned. 

Paperback:  
Audio download:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

De/Cipher - Mark Frary ****

I was a little doubtful when I first saw this book. Although it has the intriguing tagline 'The greatest codes ever invented and how to crack them' the combination of a small format hardback and gratuitous illustrations made me suspect it would be a lightweight, minimal content, Janet and John approach to codes and ciphers. Thankfully, in reality Mark Frary manages to pack a remarkable amount of content into De/Cipher's slim form.

Not only do we get some history on and instructions to use a whole range of ciphers, there are engaging little articles on historical codebreakers and useful guidance on techniques to break the simpler ciphers. The broadly historical structure takes the reader through basic alphabetic manipulation, keys, electronic cryptography, one time pads and so on, all the way up to modern public key encryption and a short section on quantum cryptography. 

We even get articles on some of the best known unsolved ciphers, such as the Dorabella and the Voynich ma…

Paul McAuley - Four Way Interview

Paul McAuley won the Philip K. Dick Award for his first novel and has gone on to win the Arthur C. Clarke, British Fantasy, Sidewise and John W. Campbell Awards. He gave up his position as a research biologist to write full-time. He lives in London. His latest novel is Austral.


Why science fiction?

For one thing, I fell in love with science fiction at an early age, and haven’t yet fallen out of love with it (although I have flirted with other genres). For another, we’re living in an increasingly science-fictional present. Every day brings headlines that could have been ripped from a science-fiction story. Giant robot battle: Who knew a duel between chainsaw-armed mech suits could be so boring? for instance. Or, Roy Orbison hologram to embark on UK tour in 2018. And looming above all this, like Hokusai’s famous wave, are the ongoing changes caused by global warming and climate change, which is just one consequence of human activity having become the dominant force of change on the planet…

Karl Drinkwater - Four Way Interview

Karl Drinkwater is originally from Manchester, but has lived in Wales half his life. He is a full-time author, edits fiction for other writers and was a professional librarian for over twenty-five years. He has degrees in English, Classics and Information Science. When he isn't writing, he loves exercise, guitars, computer and board games, the natural environment, animals, social justice, cake and zombies - not necessarily in that order. His latest novel is Lost Solace.

Why science fiction?

My favourite books have always been any form of speculative fiction. As a child I began with ghost stories, which were the first books to make me completely forget I was reading. By my teenage years I was obsessed with fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Although I read literary and contemporary books, non-fiction, historical works, classics and so on, it is speculative fiction that I return to when I want escape and wonder. When I read reviews of my last book, the fast-paced novella Harvest Fe…