The Infinity Puzzle by Frank Close

One of the things that is sometimes very frustrating (to me, at least) about popular physics books is that they rush very quickly through the physics that we already know, in order to spend time talking about wildly speculative ideas. This not only gives some of these books a very short shelf life, as their wilder speculations get ruled out, but it does a dis-service to science. Because as cool as some of the things that might be true are, the stuff that we already know is pretty awesome in its own right, and even more amazing for being true.

Happily, Frank Close’s new book, The Infinity Puzzle: Quantum Field Theory and the Hunt for an Orderly Universe does not fall into that trap. This is a detailed history of, well, quantum field theory: from the early days of quantum electrodynamics through the development of Yang-Mills theories, electroweak unification, and the theory of the strong force.

This might not sound like a gripping read, but it was actually absolutely fascinating, and kept me engaged through a number of late-night baby-soothing sessions, which is just about the highest praise you can give a book about theoretical physics. Close managed this because the book covers all the ins and outs, false paths and missed chances of the story. At several different points in the story, various people had the opportunity to put all the pieces together and arrive at electroweak unification years before it was actually completed, but through a series of miscommunications (most memorably a conversation in which John Ward stopped Gerald Guralnik from telling him about his work), nobody did. It’s a very rich and very human story, clearly and engagingly told.

This book covers a lot of the same territory as last year’s celebrated Massive by Ian Sample, about the Higgs boson, but it takes a view that is both broader and more detailed. Close is himself a theoretical physicist, and knows many of the principle actors in his story,which allows him to go into a bit more detail about both the theory and the people who made it, while relying less on the contributions of any single source. The weakness of Sample’s book, to me, was that it felt like he had talked very extensively with Peter Higgs, but only briefly with the others, giving his treatment a very imbalanced feel. Close doesn’t have that problem, and the book is better for it.

His personal conections and expertise come in particularly handy toward the end of the book, where he spends a bunch of time reconstructing the series of events surrounding the discovery of the nature of the strong nuclear interaction. Frank Wilczek, David Politzer, and David Gross shared the Nobel for this discovery, but in their Nobel lectures and public statements, they give contradictory descriptions of the crucial period in 1972-3 when the key discoveries were made. Close spends a good deal of time trying to reconstruct a plausible chronology of the key events, which is a nice piece of work. Another section goes through the contributions of Abdus Salam in detail, explaining how Salam’s name (and not that of Ward, his collaborator on the key paper) became firmly attached to electroweak unification, culminating in his sharing the Nobel with Sheldon Glashow and Steven Weinberg.

This is the sort of thing that could easily slip into being either too much inside baseball, or just Nobel gossip, but to my mind Close does an excellent job of avoiding either of those pitfalls. The resulting sections could serve as a useful reference for showing students how science really works, and how credit for significant discoveries is eventually assigned.

Blogging ethics demand that I mention that I got a free copy of this from the publisher. In fact, since Close and I share an editor, T.J. Kelleher at Basic Books, I read this on my iPad as a PDF of the page proofs. This actualy ended up being a little unfortunate, as reading in PDF made following endnotess cumbersome, so I mostly didn’t look at them, only to find later that there are quite a few interesting comments and anecdotes in the endnotes, along with basic citations of sources. If you get this in a real ebook format, this shouldn’t be an issue, and I recommend that you look at the notes when they appear.

(Even more full disclosure: Close was also kind enough to provide a blurb for my forthcoming book, about which more later… That happened well after I got this and read it, though.)

To sum up, then, despite the somewhat intimidating subtitle, this is a highly readable and detailed history of what is arguably the best-tested theory in the history of science. It gives a sense of the theory and the problems involved without being mathematically intimidating– there aren’t any equations here– covers all the many ins and outs, false steps and miscommunications, and jockeying for credit involved in the development of the Standard Model. If you’re interested in what we know to be true about the universe and how it works, and how we put that knowledge together, I highly recommend this book.

Comments

  1. #1 Sili
    December 8, 2011

    Great. This is the third book you’re making me buy. (I can’t remember what compelled me to get Struik.)

  2. #2 Neil Bates
    December 8, 2011

    Is the issue of infinite field energy really solved? I know that virtual particles polarize the vacuum and reduce the E field close to a charge (really really close ..) but if you integrate the field energy, down to “the nub” (presumably a point or very tiny, certainly smaller than the classical electron radius), isn’t it more than e.g. the mass of the electron? It seems to me that is problematical. Maybe the book answers the question …

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