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Sunday, August 14, 2016

What I'm reading (#18)

I am fascinated by how the universe works.  It's what got me into science; I felt driven to understand not just the surface, the descriptive stuff, but why things operate as they do.  Of course, when you start pursuing the whys in science, you get yourself in deep water fast -- and, according to a physics professor friend of mine, you will inevitably at some point come up against the brick wall of "we don't know why this is the way things are; they just are this way."

But it's this drive to comprehend the inner workings that spurred me to read Sean Carroll's amazing book The Particle at the End of the Universe -- the story of how the Higgs boson was discovered, and what it implies about the deep structure of the cosmos.  Carroll's book is at once personal and technical; any huge endeavor such as the search for the Higgs inevitably involves a kaleidoscope of different personalities, each with their own specialties and quirks.  Carroll does a wonderful job of showing us not only the science behind the Higgs, but the fascinating interplay of scientists and technicians that made its discovery possible.

It's also inevitable, however, that the book involves some venturing into the deeper waters I alluded to earlier.  I found parts of it a challenging read, despite my bachelor's degree in physics (although I must, in the interest of honesty, mention that my performance as a physics student was lackluster at best).  But even the parts that were difficult were worth muddling through.  He's a wonderfully lucid writer, and the glimpses you get of the inner workings of particle physics are as grand as they are mind-bending.

And he's up front, too, about the fact that there are still huge gaps in our understanding.  Even what we do know has a mystifying quality to it, when you take it to the level of subatomic physics.  Take the following passage from Carroll's book, about something that we experience every day -- light:
It's only because the data force us into corners that we are inspired to create the highly counterintuitive structures that form the basis for modern physics...  Imagine that a person in the ancient world was wondering what made the sun shine.  It's not really credible to imagine that they would think about it for a while and decide, "I bet most of the sun is made up of particles that can bump into one another and stick together, with one of them converting into a different kind of particle by emitting yet a third particle, which would be massless if it wasn't for the existence of a field that fill space and breaks the symmetry that is responsible for the associated force, and that fusion of the original two particles releases energy, which we ultimately see as sunlight."  But that's exactly what happens.  It took many decades to put this story together, and it never would have happened if our hands weren't forced by the demands of observation and experiment at every step.
So along with Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time and Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos, The Particle at the End of the Universe is another book to add to your list of fantastic non-fiction reads.  I won't promise that it'll be an easy summer read -- but you will come away with your mind significantly expanded.  And as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions."

1 comment:

  1. Gordon, I enjoyed hearing you at the writer's conference in Winslow. And now I have enjoyed Tales of Whoa. Just finished the short story The Hourglass... glad you are writing! best, Crow