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Humbled again by particle physics

Book Book Review, Title The second creation, Author Robert P. Crease, Rating 3.0, Humbled again by particle physics

The second creation

Robert P. Crease

Book Review



This is a history of the development of the Standard Model of particle physics, circa 1986. It is well regarded by physicists for its sociological treatment, as well as its attempt to record the false starts and uncertainty that accompany leading edge science; certainly the personalities and their various collaborations and squabbles are vividly rendered. As to the science, it is particularly good in providing a pithy description of how a unified theory of electromagnetic, strong and weak forces gives rise to our description of the early events of the Big Bang theory.

According to the Standard Model, the strong force operates at the nuclear level, holding protons close together against their repulsive electrical force. The electromagnetic forces dictate atomic, chemical, biological and other phenomena or our daily lives. The weak force operates in the realm of radioactivity. The strong force is about 100 times as powerful as the electrical force, which is many of orders of magnitude stronger than the weak force, a massive challenge in building a unified theory to explain the three forces together. It would appear that these forces of disparate strength really don’t coexist in any meaningful conceptual way, save in either in the deep past (a historical understanding), or near the predicted thermal death of the universe billions of years in the future. In the Standard Model, the unified forces were unified only for an instant after the Big Bang, and diverged rapidly to the segregated forces observed today. The Standard Model thus gives rise to the directly unverifiable physical model of the ‘birth’of physics just after the Big Bang.

The book otherwise is a science history that is aimed both at a lay and a professional physics audience, which is a difficult trick to pull off.  Much of the science will make little sense to those who are not familiar with the field (in this case, theoretical physics); the book focuses much of its effort on the important conundrums that physicists solved on their way from the pre-20th century classical physics to today’s particle physics and cosmology without providing much grounding to the nonprofessional. For example, many references are made to gauge theories, Lagrangian equations, covariance, group theory frameworks, etc. with no explanation of the terms. Select passages are quite good for the layman, among whom I find myself, but mostly . . . not.

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