Symmetry and the Beautiful Universe

25 November 2005

by Leon M Lederman and Christopher T Hill, Prometheus Books. Hardback ISBN 1591022428, $29.

A tribute to mathematical genius Emmy Noether (1882-1935) is long overdue. Noether’s theorem, which neatly linked symmetries in physical laws to constants of nature, heralded the most important conceptual breakthrough of modern physics and yet her name is rarely found in books on the subject. Symmetry and the Beautiful Universe attempts to right that wrong.


This popular-science book is presented as being accessible to “lay readers” and “the serious student of nature”. So is it? Well, any treatise on symmetry begs for pictures but we find very few until near the end, and often we get the proverbial thousand words instead. Also there are more mathematical equations than appear at first sight, as some are embedded in the text. So, I suspect that the going would be easier for the serious student than for lay readers.

The range of topics and styles is humongous, from cartoon character Professor Peabody with angular momentum worthy of a dervish (smoking a pipe), to Feynman diagrams for first-order quantum corrections in electron-electron scattering. The short biography of Noether is good and her theorem is well praised, although the chapter devoted to explaining it is rather long-winded.
More than once the reader is first given an esoteric example of some process or other and only later a more familiar example; momentum conservation starts with radioactive neutron decay and goes on to colliding billiard balls. Then there are “gedanken” experiments. These are familiar devices to scientists but will a lay reader believe that space is isotropic because a hypothetical experiment is said to show that it is? And sometimes the book is mystifyingly US-centric. What are EPA rules? And why is Kansas special?

However, the undeniable enthusiasm of the authors for their subject, indeed for almost any subject, shines brightly throughout. Even leaving aside the 60 or so pages of notes and appendix, the book brims over with facts, figures and fun fictions, often straying far from the subject of symmetry. I estimate that a smart cut-and-paste editor could produce three good books out of the material on offer, each at a quite different level. Find your own.

Reviewing a book that has one Nobel laureate as an author and two among the constellation of stars glowingly quoted on the dust jacket is a daunting task. I was once told that “astounding” conveys an acceptable amalgam of the polite and the honest when one is overwhelmed. This book is astounding.

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