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. 


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


Popular posts from this blog

The Magicians - Marcus Chown *****

The title may seem an odd one for a popular science book, but it refers to what Chown describes as ‘the central magic of science: its ability to predict the existence of things previously undreamt of which, when people went out and looked for them, turned out to actually exist in the real universe’. That may be true of all branches of science, but physics – which is what the book is about – is a special case, because its theories are rooted in mathematical equations rather than words. This makes the matter completely black-and-white: if the equations predict something you had no inkling of, then either the maths is wrong, or that thing really does exist. This book describes some remarkable instances where the maths was right.

Actually, I’m not sure the title is strictly accurate. It’s true that it centres on people – both the theoreticians who came up with the predictions and the experimentalists who proved them right – but in most cases the ‘magic’ is something the human players simpl…

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.


Until the End of Time: Brian Greene ***

Things start well with this latest title from Brian Greene: after a bit of introductory woffle we get into an interesting introduction to entropy. As always with Greene's writing, this is readable, chatty and full of little side facts and stories. Unfortunately, for me, the book then suffers something of an increase in entropy itself as on the whole it then veers more into philosophy and the soft sciences than Greene's usual physics and cosmology.

So, we get chapters on consciousness, language, belief and religion, instinct and creativity, duration and impermanence, the ends of time and, most cringe-making as a title, 'the nobility of being'. Unlike the dazzling scientific presentation I expect, this mostly comes across as fairly shallow amateur philosophising.

Of course it's perfectly possible to write good science books on, say, consciousness or language - but though Greene touches on the science, there far too much that's more hand-waving. And good though he i…