31 March 2010

A Zeptospace Odyssey: A Journey into the Physics of the LHC by Gian Francesco Giudice, Oxford University Press. Hardback ISBN 9780199581917, £25 ($45).

If you are of the opinion that working physicists do not care about the history of their discipline or that theorists, like Gian Giudice, have no interest in the details of the experimental machines and detectors, this book will come as a surprise. The same is true if you share the view that it is not possible to describe the frontiers of modern physics – including the most speculative ones – to non-experts in a way that is both faithful and comprehensible. This book does all of that and is enjoyable reading, with the important information that it carries mixed in with many fun facts and anecdotes of all sorts. Not to mention the spot-on explanatory metaphors that are distributed profusely throughout almost every chapter.

One quality of this book is its comprehensive character, with its contents in three approximately equal parts. The first gives a brief but inspired history of particle physics, from J J Thomson’s discovery of the electron up to the setting of the Standard Model, without neglecting James Clark Maxwell, quite appropriately, or even Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton. In the author’s words, the expected “results for the LHC” – surely the main inspiration of the book – “cannot be appreciated without some notion of what the particle world looks like”. The central section “describes what the LHC is and how it operates” – no more or less than that – in a successful effort to make clear the astonishing technological innovations involved in the LHC enterprise. This is useful reading for everybody, including politicians.

Last but not least, the third section “culminates with an outline of the scientific aims and expectations of the LHC”, addressing the central open issues in particle physics and beyond. Here Giudice is also not afraid to venture into the description of interesting theoretical speculations, while always keeping a sober view of the overall subject. “We do not know what lies in zeptospace and the LHC has just started its adventure” is the very last sentence of the book, which I fully support. By the way, “a zeptometre is a billionth of a billionth of a millimetre”, not quite but almost the distance that will be explored for the first time by the LHC: hence “zeptospace”.

The coming of the LHC is certainly the main inspiration of the book. The awe and excitement brought on by the start of LHC operation exudes from all its pages. But I think there is more to it than that. There is a view of what I like to call “synthetic physics”, that is the physics that aims to describe nature, or at least some part of it, in terms of few principles and few equations. In many respects the book pays tribute to “synthetic physics”. This is what determines the unity of its style and of its arguments. To whom do I recommend its reading? To everybody, experts or non-experts. I would in particular encourage young people, starting from those who are nearing the end of their high-school studies. I am sure that their efforts will be highly rewarded, not to mention the pleasure they will find. I believe, and I certainly wish, that this book will become required reading for anyone interested in scientific human endeavour, in the reality of our world.

Riccardo Barbieri, Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa.

Gli anelli del sapere. The Rings of Knowledge by Federico Brunetti (ed.), Editrice Abitare Segesta. Hardback ISBN 9788886116930, €50.

With 350 photographs in about 150 pages, The Rings of Knowledge is a beautiful photographic collection interspersed with some text, whose role in putting over the message is almost peripheral. The book is bilingual, English and Italian, and so is aimed at an international audience.

The authors and editor have succeeded in illustrating the Italian contribution to CERN and the LHC. The book particularly emphasizes the role of the Italian National Institute for Nuclear Research (INFN) and its involvement in leading worldwide scientific projects, of which the LHC is the flagship. The pride in contributing to the “LHC era” – as defined by the president of INFN, Roberto Petronzio, in the foreword – sometimes causes the authors to fall into the trap of excessive self-celebration. Statements such as “The LHC could not have been realized without Italy’s collaboration” apply equally to many other member states of CERN and could be badly perceived by an international readership.

The most distinctive feature is that Federico Brunetti, the editor, is an architect and photographer from the Industrial Design, Arts and Communication Department of Milan Politecnico. The chapters “The LHC between science and architecture” and “Physics as design” show his astonishment with the “enormous machines”, “enormous dimensions”, the “never-before-seen extremes of the place”. However, they also show that communication is an issue for any specialized discipline, including architecture.

The wording of these chapters is complex and the concepts are described with a sort of jargon that makes reading difficult. In particular, the concept of “beauty” in design and in physics is mentioned several times and in different places but is never really presented in a clear way. This is a pity because it would have been an interesting point to develop in a comprehensible way.

Back to the main point of the book: I found the photographs really amazing. The square layout is based on Fibonacci’s geometric series and shows the link between physics and design. Unfortunately, even this fascinating point is not clearly explained in the text. For example, one caption on page 25 helps the reader’s intuition but simpler phrasing would significantly increase the overall enjoyment of the book.

Antonella Del Rosso, CERN.

Deciphering the Cosmic Number: The Strange Friendship of Wolfgang Pauli and Carl Jung by Arthur I Miller, W W Norton. Hardback ISBN 9780393065329, £18.99 ($27.95). Paperback, published as 137: Jung, Pauli, and the Pursuit of a Scientific Obsession. ISBN 9780393338645, £11.99 ($16.95).

Do you think there is a sense beyond numbers? Do they have any special meaning? Are there some more powerful than others? Many great men throughout the centuries have exercised their minds to find answers to these questions. In his latest book, the distinguished historian of science Arthur I Miller (p17) investigates one of the possible responses in the unique blend of two extraordinary lives, those of Carl Jung and Wolfgang Pauli.

The book tells the story of the fruitful friendship between two of the greatest thinkers of our times, who were obsessed with the power of certain numbers. The two personalities are central to the narrative and the author masters their story with plenty of interesting details that hold our attention with humour. In the course of reading, we sometimes encounter complex physics formulas, but Miller expertly translates them into a refined interpretation that novices can understand.

Among the accurate account of the enormous and lasting contributions to their respective fields, such as Pauli’s hypothesis of the neutrino in physics and Jung’s theory of a collective unconscious in psychoanalysis, we find indeed “the” number: 137. This pure number, the fine structure constant, which to the eyes of a layman may appear harmless and meaningless, was the “step toward the great goal of finding a theory that would unite the domains of relativity and quantum theory, the large and the small, the macrocosm and the microcosm”. But it is not only that. Through the unfolding of dreams, mandalas, archetypes and symbols, this number turns out to be the golden gate between rational and emotional, creativity and intelligence, science and belief. This tale provides us with a window across time and space into enlightenments of genius.

Deciphering the Cosmic Number is a revelation of something beyond intuition that compels us to participate in the human torment in those whose lives are marked by the quest to find answers to questions transcending centuries and ages. It describes, looking through a magnifying glass, the lives of two human beings who achieved so much in their fields through a “strange friendship” during the difficult period of the Second World War.

Beatrice Bressan, CERN.

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