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Fundamentals - Frank Wilczek ****

In keeping with the trend of having seven this or ten that (Carlo Rovelli has a lot to answer for), physicist Frank Wilzek sets out to give us 'ten keys to reality'. As Wilczek explains in his introduction, the aim is to explore two themes: abundance and seeing things differently, with a childlike curiosity and lack of preconceptions. The author also points out that he aims to offer an alternative to religious fundamentalism. As he notes, many of his scientific heroes were devout Christians, and he 'aims to transcend specific dogmas, whether religious or anti-religious'.

In essence there are two things going on in this book. On the one hand, each of the ten main sections covers a fairly straightforward aspect of physics and cosmology, though not from the viewpoint of a physical theory so much as context such as space, time, natural laws and so on - in this, it will be familiar ground to anyone who has read a popular science physics primer. But the aspect that lifts Wilczek's book is that in covering the basics he both gives us a more grounded sense of place and adds in details that you rarely see elsewhere.

So, for example, we're used to Brian Cox-style popular science that echoes the classic Douglas Adams parody of saying that space is big - really big - so big you are an insignificant little dot. While Wilczek emphasises the scale of the universe compared to a human being, he also points out that, for example, we have more atoms in our bodies than there are estimated to be stars in the visible universe. And as such each of us is also impressively large - the scale works in both directions.

Another example of strikingly original way of looking at things is that in talking about physical laws, Wilczek imagines being a conscious being in the world of a computer game character such as Super Mario, in a world where the rules are unpredictable, and takes us through the implications of being in such a different universe. This is brilliant.

Some of the ten sections are rather thinner than others. I was a bit disappointed by a section on complexity and emergence - so important in reality (as opposed the often very constrained world of physical models), which only runs to eight pages. Nonetheless, each section is readable and enjoyable. There were one or two slightly odd aspects. He tells us that the visible universe is 13.8 billion years old so the 'limiting distance is... 13.8 billion light years' - which is misleading as it ignores the expansion of the universe that means that the equivalent distance is closer to 50 billion light years. He also can over simply - for example by referring to 'u' and 'd' quarks, missing out or where those letters come from and the interesting story behind quark naming, or speaking about quantum spin as if it involves spinning around like a macro object.

Inevitably an overview like this will have masses of simplification and in the end it's a matter of taste what goes and what stays. While I wouldn't agree with all the selections, I found Wilczek's approach genuinely refreshing and this book has so much more going for it that many of these overview titles. It's interesting to compare it with Jim Al-Khalili's World According to Physics. In many ways they're complementary (complementarity is another section in this book, funnily). Al-Khalili gives a far more insightful picture of the physics itself. Wilczek gives us a much more impressive philosophical context for that view of the universe. I think I would recommend reading both - perhaps Wilzeck first to get the context, then Al-Khalili to get the specifics. Together, they provide an ideal physics primer for the curious mind.


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Review by Brian Clegg


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