Festive Bookshelf

Once again, it will soon be time for many of us to take a well-earned break with friends and family, probably after a few hectic hours searching for presents in this festive season. To help with the shopping – whether for others or for yourself – this end-of-year Bookshelf presents some suggestions for more relaxed reading


Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field: How Two Men Revolutionized Physics
By Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon
Prometheus Books
Hardback: $25.92

The birth of modern physics coincides with the lifespans of Michael Faraday (1791–1867) and James Clerk Maxwell (1831–1879). During these years, electric, magnetic and optical phenomena were unified in a single description by introducing the concept of the field – a word coined by Faraday himself while vividly summarizing an amazing series of observations in his Experimental Researches in Electricity. Faraday – a mathematical illiterate – was the first to intuit that, thanks to the field concept, the foundations of the physical world are imperceptible to our senses. All that we know about these foundations – Maxwell would add – are their mathematical relationships to things that we can feel and touch.

Today, the field concept – both classically and quantum mechanically – is unavoidable, and this recent book by Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon sheds fresh light on the origins of electromagnetism by scrutinizing the mutual interactions of Victorian scientists living through a period characterized by great social and scientific mobility. Faraday started as a chemist, became an experimental physicist, then later a businessman and even an inspector of lighthouses – an important job at that time. Maxwell began his career as a mathematician, became what we would call today a theoretical physicist, and then founded the Cavendish Laboratory while holding the chair of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge.

The first seven chapters focus on Faraday’s contributions, while the remainder are more directly related to Maxwell and his scientific descendants or, as the authors like to say, the Maxwellians. The reader encounters not only the ideas and original texts of Faraday and Maxwell, but also a series of amazing scientists, such as the chemist Humphry Davy (Faraday’s mentor), as well as an assorted bunch of mathematicians and physicists including David Forbes (Maxwell’s teacher), John Tyndall, Peter Tait, George Airy, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) and Oliver Heaviside. All of these names are engraved in the memories of students for contributions sometimes not directly related to electromagnetism, and it is therefore interesting to read the opinions of these leading scientists on the newly born field theory.

The historical account might at first seem a little biased, but it is nonetheless undeniable that the field concept took shape essentially between England and Scotland. The first hints for the unification of magnetic and electric phenomena can be traced back to William Gilbert, who in 1600 described electric and magnetic phenomena in a single treatise called De Magnete. More than 200 years later, the Maxwell equations (together with the Hertz experiment) finally laid to rest the theory of "action at a distance" of André-Marie Ampère and Charles-Augustin de Coulomb.

The last speculative paper written by Faraday (and sent to Maxwell for advice) dealt with the gravitational field itself. Maxwell replied that the gravitational lines of force could "weave a web across the sky" and "guide the stars in their courses". General relativity was on the doorstep.

Massimo Giovannini, CERN and INFN Milan-Bicocca.

Behind the Scenes of the Universe: From the Higgs to Dark Matter
By Gianfranco Bertone
Oxford University Press
Hardback: £19.99
Also available as an e-book, and at the CERN bookshop

With the discovery of a Higgs boson by the ATLAS and CMS experiments, the concept of mass has changed from an intrinsic property of each particle to the result of an interaction between the particles and the omnipresent Higgs field: the stronger that interaction is, the more it slows down the particle, which effectively behaves as if it is massive. This experimental validation of a theoretical idea born 50 years ago is a major achievement in elementary particle physics, and confirms the Standard Model as the cornerstone in our understanding of the universe. However, as is often the case in science, there is more to mass than meets the eye: most of the mass of the universe is currently believed to exist in a form that has, so far, remained hidden from our best detectors.

Gianfranco Bertone seems to have been travelling through the dark side of the universe for quite a while, and I am glad that he has taken the time to write this beautiful account of his journey. The book is easy to read, the scientific observations, puzzles and discussions being interspersed with interesting short annotations from history, art, poetry, etc. Readers should enjoy the non-technical tour through general relativity, gravitational lensing, cosmology, particle physics, etc. In particular, one learns that space–time bends light rays travelling through the universe, and that we can deduce the properties of a lens by studying the images it distorts. At the end of this learning curve we reach the conclusion that "we have a problem": no matter where we look, and how we look, we always infer the existence of much more mass than we can see. Bertone expresses it poetically: "The cosmic scaffolding that grew the galaxies we live in and keeps them together is made of a form of matter that is unknown to us, and far more abundant in the universe than any form of matter we have touched, seen, or experienced in any way."

The second half of the book wanders through the efforts devised to indentify the nature of dark matter, through the direct or indirect detection of dark-matter particles, with the LHC experiments, deep underground detectors, or detectors orbiting the Earth. As more data are collected and interpreted, more regions of parameters defining the properties of the dark-matter particles are excluded. In a few years, the data accumulated at the LHC and in astroparticle experiments will be such that, for many dark-matter candidates, "we must either discover them or rule them out". The book is an excellent guide to anyone interested in witnessing that important step in the progress of fundamental physics.

Carlos Lourenço, CERN.

Publishing and the Advancement of Science: From Selfish Genes to Galileo’s Finger
By Michael Rodgers
World Scientific
Hardback: £50
Paperback: £25
E-book: £19

In Publishing and the Advancement of Science, retired science editor Michael Rodgers take us on an autobiographical tour of the world of science publishing, taking in textbooks, trade paperbacks and popular science books along the way. The narrative is detailed and chronological: a blow-by-blow account of Rodgers’ career at various publishing houses, with the challenges, differences of opinion and downright arguments that it takes to get a science book to press.

Rodgers was part of the revolution in popular-science publishing that started in the 1970s, and he conveys with palpable excitement the experience of discovering great authors or reading brilliant typescripts for the first time. Readers with an interest in science will recognize such titles as Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene or Peter Atkins’ Physical Chemistry, both of which Rodgers worked on. Frustratingly, he falls short of providing real insight into what makes a popular-science book great. There is a niggling sense of "I know one when I see one", but a lack of analysis of the writing.

Rodgers’ first job in publishing – as "field editor" for Oxford University Press (OUP), starting in 1969 – had him visiting universities around the UK, commissioning academics to write books. Anecdotes about the inner workings of OUP at the time take the reader back to a charming, pre-web way of working: telephone calls and letters rather than e-mails and attachments, and responding to authors in days rather than minutes. The culture of publishing at the time is conveyed with wry humour. OUP sent memos about the proper use of the semicolon, and had a puzzlingly arcane filing system, which added to the sense of mustiness.

A section on the development of Dawkins’ seminal The Selfish Gene threw up interesting tidbits – altercations about the nature of the gene, and a discussion about what makes a good title – but I was less interested in the analysis of the US market for chemistry textbooks, or such tips as "The best time to publish a mainstream coursebook is in January, to allow maximum time for promotion."

At times, the level of autobiographical detail dilutes Rodgers’ sense of intellectual excitement about the scientific ideas in his books. The measure of a book’s success in terms of copies sold and years in print makes publishing a commercial rather than intellectual exercise, which to some extent left me disappointed. And although Rodgers worked part time, freelance or was made redundant at various points in his career, apart from a brief section in the epilogue, he seems rather blind to the changes sweeping the publishing industry, with the advent of free online content.

Those interested in the world of publishing, with a special interest in science, will find much to like about this book. But although Rodgers provides quirky tidbits about how some famous books came to be, it falls short of telling us what makes them great.

Cian O’Luanaigh, CERN.

Time in Powers of Ten: Natural Phenomena and Their Timescales
By Gerard ’t Hooft and Stefan Vandoren (translated by Saskia Eisberg-’t Hooft)
World Scientific
Hardback: £31
Paperback: £16
E-book: £12
Also available at the CERN bookshop

With powers of 10, one cannot fail to think of the iconic 1970s film made by Charles and Ray Eames – a journey through the universe departing from a picnic blanket somewhere in Chicago. However, this book is not about distance scales, rather time. And the universe it reveals is one of constant turmoil and evolution. No vast empty wastelands here, where nothing changes across many powers of 10. Journeying across the time scales, we discover a universe teeming with activity at every stage – processing, ticking, cycling, continuously moving, changing, surprising.

Every page brims with the authors’ evident enthusiasm for the workings of the universe, be it the esoteric or the more mundane. I would never have expected to read a book where cosmic microwave background radiation sits side by side with the problems of traffic congestion in the US (time = 10 trillion seconds).

Leaping in powers of 10, the book races through stories of life, the Earth and the solar system, and on to physical processes quadrillions of times the age of the universe itself. The largest and smallest of time scales transport the reader to the strange and fascinating. Just as with distance scales, the very small and the very large are intimately entwined.

There is a gap between the more anecdotal and the more scientific. Record sprint times (time = 10 seconds) and the rhythm of our biological clock (time = 100,000 seconds) are light interludes in contrast with the decay modes of the ηc meson (time = 10 yoctoseconds) and the Lamb shift (time = 1 nanosecond). While this eclecticism is part of the book’s charm, some scientific baggage is required to enjoy the contents fully.

Where the book fails, is in the design. Visually, it is a little dull. With disparate styles of graphic illustrations, many taken from Wikipedia, the image quality is not up to that of the text. A clever design could take readers on a visual voyage, adding to the impact of the writing. The story warrants this effort.

It is striking that mysteries exist at every time scale, not only at the extremes – be it the high magnetic field of pulsars (time = 1 second), the explanation of high-temperature superconductors (time = 10 million seconds) or the origin of water on Earth (time = 100 quadrillion seconds). The book reveals the extraordinary complexity of our universe – it is a fascinating journey.

Emma Sanders, CERN, author of The Large Hadron Collider Pop-Up Book: Voyage to the Heart of Matter (Papadakis 2013).