531: The Lightness of Being by Frank Wilczek

by Gerard

531.1: Wilczek, Frank. The Lightness of Being: Mass, Ether, and the Unification of Forces. New York: Basic Books, 2010. 220 pp. ISBN 978-0-465-01895-6.

When the folks at Dewey put out the 22nd edition, they probably didn’t foresee the eventual prominence of special relativity, quantum electrodynamics (QED), or quantum chromodynamics (QCD). There’s not really a place for books on those subjects. But, since they all try in some to solve different aspects of classical mechanics, they fit into 531.

If I devoted the rest of my natural (and unnatural) life to study of quantum physics, I might be within an order of magnitude (one-tenth) of what Frank Wilczek has forgotten about it. A pioneer of quantum chromodynamics in the 1970s and winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics, Wilczek, in The Lightness of Being, tries to take intensely complicated ideas such as gluon fields and supersymmetry and make them understandable to the lay person. For the most part, he succeeds (the mere fact that I could remember what those were called without opening the book is a feat in and of itself). Wilczek walks the reader through the history (and even some pre-history) of quantum physics, stopping along the way to talk about the current theoreticians and their (inevitably) quirky personalities.

All in all, I liked this book. I didn’t immediately glaze over when he wrote about mu leptons at length, and I could even wrap my head around the fact that color charge doesn’t mean the object has color, and I even stuck with it when he started in on the Grid and Mass without Mass. There were quite a few illustrations, but I wished there were more. The problem is that most of the visual aids of quantum physics are math and equations, and those would serve to further complicate the book. If you’ve got a free day and are done with vapid fiction, then try this book out. If not, then just watch an episode of NOVA and call it a day.