Strange Beauty by George Johnson

I’m not entirely sure how well known Murray Gell-Mann is outside the world of physics (I’m guessing ‘not very’) but for those who know of him, he ranks among the greats of twentieth century physics.  He’s best known for the Eightfold Way, a way of explaining hadronic particles using sub-particles called quarks.

41cuvv6lhil-_sy344_bo1204203200_Strange Beauty assumes some basic knowledge of physics – not necessarily in detail, but it would help to have a rough idea of the key characters and ideas of quantum physics.  It builds on this to cover the Gell-Mann’s work and methods in satisfying detail.  I would actually go as far to say that it’s some of the best representations of the subject that I have read in a popular science book.  He was slow to publish and often irritatingly cautious in the work he presented, but he wouldn’t let go of a problem once he had latched on to it and worked in very productive collaborations with colleagues (giving a counterpoint to anecdotes showing his abrasive side).  In addition to this, MGM is involved in almost every topic of importance in the field, and comes into contact with many of the other well known figures in 20th century physics.

Gell-Man’s early life is also compelling – his father was an ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful Jewish immigrant from Austria to New York.  Murray Gell-Mann seems to have inherited both his demanding nature and his usual hyphenated surname from him (his dad was born a Gellman).  In his later life, after the Nobel Prize, Gell-Mann starts to be involved in more varied adventures.  He has many interests outside physics (unlike his rival Feynman) – languages, archaeology, politics, psychology, conservation and, of course, his family.

As well as his work, much of the book is focused on his character – in a lesser book Gell-Mann could be a caricature of a perfectionist, difficult to work with, and sometimes unreliable (at least as far as deadlines are concerned).  This biography shows much more depth than that.    This multi-dimensional and often flawed personality together with the superb descriptions of his achievements makes this a great portrayal of a great scientist.

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Dreams of a Final Theory by Steven Weinberg

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it on here, but my degree was in Particle Physics.  You start to pick up the big names (if you didn’t know them already) as you learn the subject – Steven Weinberg is one such name.  His work on electroweak unification was a major part of the course.

You also start to pick up the details of previous experiments.  In my era, with the Large Hadron Collider just starting to take data, the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) came up now and then.  This experiment that never was, was cancelled in 1993 due to budget problems.  It would have reached energies well beyond that of the LHC.

In 1992 Weinberg released this book, describing why he believed that a “final” theory of fundamental physics would exist, what it could look like, and justifying the funding of the SSC.  Although he did not win the debate on funding, the arguments in the book still stand – it’s surprising how up to date the book seems.  In the last 25 years, we have discovered the Top quark, flavour changes in neutrinos, the Higgs Boson, gravity waves, and pushes into the limits of Supersymmetry and Dark Matter.  Yet still something more is needed.

Weinberg’s arguments on the importance of spending on fundamental science, and on his field as the most fundamental of sciences, may not land for everyone, but he places them eloquently and (relatively) diplomatically.  His discussion on realism vs positivism is very interesting, it filled in some of the gaps from my very experimentally focused degree.  If you’ve ever heard someone refer to a theory as “beautiful”, this is as good a place as any to get an explanation of what they mean and why this matters.

After writing this I found another recent review of it in the Guardian.  From the early days of the LHC, but I think it too is still very valid.  https://www.theguardian.com/science/2011/jul/08/dreams-final-theory-weinberg-review