23 November 2011

The Beautiful Invisible: Creativity, Imagination, and Theoretical Physics • LHC • Constructing Reality: Quantum Theory and Particle Physics • Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World • Cosmic Numbers: The Numbers That Define Our Universe • L’Energia del Vuoto (Vacuum’s Energy) • The Fear Index • The Joy of English: 100 illuminating conversations about the English language • Books received

Festive Bookshelf

Once again, it will soon be time for many of us to spend some time with friends and family, probably after a few hectic hours of searching for presents in this festive season. To help with the shopping, this edition of Bookshelf includes some books that aim to take particle physics and related areas of science to a wider audience, together with one or two that you may want to add to your own wish list.

The Beautiful Invisible: Creativity, Imagination, and Theoretical Physics
By Giovanni Vignale
Oxford University Press
Hardback: £16.99 $22

Most things in life are not “invariants”. Consider two identical glasses of good wine. A thirsty person quickly drinks the first one and then complains about the ensuing headache. The other glass has its aromas and textures slowly appreciated, mixed with the whispering sounds of waves breaking on a nearby shore, dimly illuminated by the crimson shades of the late afternoon sun – still bright but so tired from the long day’s journey that its descent behind the shallow mountains can be directly followed, triggering an everlasting memory associating the wine’s flavours with a pleasant feeling. The Beautiful Invisible is a truly remarkable opus, better appreciated if read in a slow and relaxed mood, savouring each sentence, each paragraph. I wonder if I have ever read another book with so few misprints, unclear sentences, or misplaced arguments. Each word is the right word, in the right place. And yet, as if to disturb the poet Stefan Mallarmé (“We do not write poems with ideas, but with words”), the continuum of great ideas is, at least for physicists, what makes this book such a wonderful “poem”.

Giovanni Vignale, besides being a professor at the University of Missouri and a condensed-matter theorist, is a connoisseur of literature, art, theatre and cinema, and seems to have spent plenty of time in transatlantic flights to conceive this “travel guide”. It takes the interested reader through a journey of invisible fields and virtual characters, intertwined with the reality of surreal but beautiful landscapes, surpassing the most imaginative creations of the human mind. As every condensed-matter theorist knows, “more is different”, and if you dive into this book, your mind will be filled with much more than just physics. Saint-Exupery, Musil, Bulgakov, Borges, García Márquez, Elliot, Poe, Shakespeare, Magritte, Vermeer and many others will walk along with you on this path to enlightenment. Some of the scenery is impressive and breathtaking. Maxwell’s discovery of electromagnetic waves by a purely theoretical argument, Dirac’s bringing together of quantum mechanics and special relativity, and other magnificent viewpoints welcome you along this incredible journey, which connects mechanics, thermodynamics, relativity, electrodynamics and quantum mechanics and ends on superconductivity – “one of the highest achievements of the physics of the 20th century” – a natural stop for a book published in 2011.

Along the way, casually dropped here and there by the side of the path, you might find some pearls of wisdom: “we must already know what we are looking for, in order to see it”; “theory grows at the confluence of fantasy and truth”; “there is no better way to test a theory than to apply it to a scenario different from the one that initially prompted its development”. We are also reminded of the fascinating and paradoxical mysteries of quantum mechanics: “there is nothing I can say to demystify it, words attempt the task and come back defeated”. And we are given some good advice: “complex calculations often simplify dramatically when approached from the right angle”; “different representations stimulate our imagination in different ways, producing vastly different results”; certain issues are “ignorable in the limit of interest”. At the end, after almost 300 pages, the pilgrim is offered some final take-home souvenirs: “there are no final truths at the frontier, only an inexhaustible activity that creates and continuously destroys its own creations”, “the search for the truth has more value than the truth itself”.

Vignale shows, convincingly, that no one should think that physicists are any less imaginative than novelists or poets. In summary, this book is the best Christmas reading for physicists this year (even better than Dirac’s Principles of Quantum Mechanics), at least for physicists who manage to relax for a week or two. I will surely enjoy reading it again, some day. But first I would like to follow up some of the many “suggestions for further reading”. Maybe I will start by reminding myself of Le Petit Prince: “anything essential is invisible to the eye and one sees clearly only with the heart”.

Carlos Lourenço, CERN.

By Peter Ginter, Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Franzobel
Edition Lammerhuber
Hardback: €64

This large-format, lavishly produced volume in its psychedelic slipcase is a fitting celebration of the “world machine” that is the LHC. To describe it as a coffee-table book is to demean it. Long after the LHC has been superseded, it will remain as a beautiful record of the astonishing complexity and achievement of what currently hums and whirls beneath placid Swiss and French fields.

LHC is built around the photographs of Peter Ginter, master of the demanding craft – and art – of photographing technology and industry. The pictures are complemented by an interview with Rolf-Dieter Heuer, director-general of CERN, and an essay by Franzobel (pseudonym of the Austrian writer Stefan Griebl). Together with the explanatory picture captions, the text (in English, German and French) builds up to provide an excellent layperson’s introduction to the LHC, how it works and what it aims to achieve.

The book divides into sections on the collider, the four big detectors (ALICE, ATLAS, CMS, LHCb), event displays and computing (“from www to grid”), together with a brief history of CERN and the LHC project.

The photographs are magnificent. To any child or adult unfamiliar with particle physics, and even to people who visit CERN frequently or work there every day, they reveal the LHC and its detectors as a soaring pinnacle of research, built with the precision, coordination and search for truth that informed the great medieval cathedrals, updated to the 21st century.

One photograph shows four Russian workmen perched on a mound of artillery shell casings; a second shows the brass from the casings turned into a wheel of giant golden segments arranged like the iris diaphragm of a camera; and a third shows this huge “wheel” – designed to cause showers of secondary particles after an initial collision – being installed as one of the elements of the CMS detector.

And there is more. A physicist abseils into the gleaming innards of LHCb, like a mountaineer into a crevasse. Pakistani workmen pose beside one of the “feet” on which the 14,000 tonne CMS will sit. Engineers are dwarfed as one of the giant coils of the ATLAS toroid is manoeuvred into position. ALICE’s innermost detector gleams with myriad silicon faces like a futuristic Fabergé egg.

This book is a great photographic feat by Ginter; the result of endless visits to CERN over many years. Each picture has been planned, negotiated, composed and lit, representing many hours of work and inspiration.

Edition Lammerhuber has produced a magnificent volume to the highest publishing standards. Everyone concerned with or interested in CERN should have a copy. I also urge the publishers to produce an e-book version that could reach a mass audience worldwide. These pictures would look glorious on a tablet computer.

Michael Marten, Science Photo Library.

Constructing Reality: Quantum Theory and Particle Physics
By John Marburger
Cambridge University Press
Hardback: £17.99 $29
E-book: $23

This is easily the best introduction to quantum theory and particle physics that I have ever seen. The book is remarkable both for what it covers and for what it does not. Unlike many recent popular books, this one avoids references to unproven hypotheses such as grand unification, supersymmetry, strings and extra dimensions. The total space devoted to these ideas is under two pages. Rather, the book describes the story of the development of physical theory from Newtonian mechanics through the changes that were required by relativity and quantum mechanics. It continues all the way through to a lucid description of the Standard Model, nuclear physics and the periodic table and conveys tremendous excitement at how far physics has advanced while sticking to what is really known. It presents a clear and deep account of the physicist’s view of the basic bits that make up the world and how they interact.

The author provides a great deal of mathematical detail, but this never requires anything beyond what would be expected of a high-school student or first-year university undergraduate. Even concepts such as complex numbers, vectors, matrices and Hilbert space are introduced just enough to make the basic ideas clear without getting bogged down in detail. If I hadn’t just read the book, I would have doubted that such a presentation would even be possible.

Each chapter has detailed notes and references at the end. These could easily lead a serious reader a good way into an undergraduate physics education. Without “dumbing things down”, the mathematical concepts are presented with clear physical insight and motivated by their necessity to understand observed reality.

One caveat is that there is little detail on experiments, but I think this sacrifice is worthwhile to maintain focus and keep the book to under 300 readable pages. Certainly the key role played by experiments in physics is made extremely clear. Perhaps the best single overall feature of the book from the view of a practicing particle physicist, is that you can give it to any bright person to give them a good idea of the field and not have them wondering which parts correspond to tested ideas and which are purely speculative.

Many friends and colleagues have asked me to point them to something that could give them a clear picture of what’s actually known and this is, in every way, just the sort of book I’ve wanted. Sadly, the author died this past July after having been director of Brookhaven National Laboratory and also director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy under US President George W Bush. I’d like to think of the book as a parting gift to those he left behind. He has done a real service to all of us in the field and I recommend the book heartily to everyone. I’ll certainly be buying quite a few for Christmas.

John Swain, Northeastern University.

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