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Lightness of Being: Mass, Ether, and the Unification of Forces
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 31 October 2008
This book is really well written by not just an expert in the field but someone who is able to make very complex ideas intelligable to non-specialists. I enjoyed this book immensely and recommend it to anyone who is either interested in particle physics or like me who has to teach it!
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 7 October 2008
Wilczek got his Nobel Prize for his part in developing Chromodynamics, the theory of quarks and gluons and their strong force interaction. In this book we get an awe-inspiring jaunt through the most modern views of the quantum vacuum (which W. calls "The Grid") and unification theories (including SUSY).

Lots of stuff I hadn't understood before - for example, the mass of protons and neutrons (actually hadrons in general) is not at all a primary attribute. Instead it's Nature's optimisation compromise between the energy in the colour field (decreases as quarks and antiquark, for example, get closer together) and the increasing energy of 'localisation' as the said quarks and antiquarks are constrained into the same place: (more precision in location means higher momentum and energy). This energy (E/c2) is what turns out to be the proton or neutron mass: the quarks and gluons themselves are almost massless.

Wilczek writes in a humorous and crystal clear way, which makes his book that rarity in popularisations - a bit of a page turner! Warning: you need to be comfortable with the conceptual basis of 'undergraduate' quantum mechanics and special relativity to engage with this book.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
One of the most important scientific stories of 2008 has been the calculation of the heavy particle masses ("hadrons") using some of the most elaborate computational methods yet. This has been yet another vindication of Quantum Chromodynamics (QCD), a strange theory that governs the interactions of particles that make up atomic nuclei. This theory is a cousin of electromagnetism, and like the theory of electromagnetism it is deceptively easy to formulate (at least with the aid of some higher mathematics), but the real-world predictions have been devilishly hard to extract. One of the earliest people to show that QCD does in fact correspond to physical reality was Frank Wilczek, who remarkably did this important work while still in his early twenties. Since then he has gone onto an illustrious career in theoretical Physics that culminated in his winning a Noble Prize for his work. To people in the Physics community he has been known for many years for his lucid expository articles, and we are all fortunate that he has written a book about some of the topics that he is the foremost authority on. The basic premise of this book, as suggested by the title itself, is that most of the stuff that we are surrounded with is in fact trapped energy. Wilckek turns the famous Einstein's equation E =m c^2 around, and in the form m = E/c^2 shows the rationale for why we can have mass as a form of energy. His writing is clear and accessible, and the book is not burdened with the technical details. Even so, many places could potentially be obscure to people who are not familiar with the basic ideas of modern Physics. Overall, however, this is one enjoyable and interesting book and a worthwhile read for anyone who is interested in the latest developments in advanced Physics.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
I need to start this review with two clarifications and a proviso. The first clarification is that this quite an old book (2008), but someone just brought it to my attention. The second clarification is about the book's title. It's not about 'The lightness of being Frank Wilczek', that's just an unfortunate choice of title. The proviso is about the four star rating. This, to me, is a very mixed book. It does two things brilliantly, and quite a lot of other things not very well. If you are interested in modern physics, particularly particle physics and quantum field theory, though, it is a must-read.

Let's get the brilliant things in first. One of the baffling things about physics when you get into quarks and gluons as the constituents of particles like protons and neutrons is that the strong force that holds them together appears to be almost non-existent when the are close, but grows to be extremely strong when they try to separate (and then pretty much disappears a little further apart). As a result of this we've never seen raw, naked quarks, even though the evidence for their existence is good.

The section of the book that covers the theoretical reasoning for the existence of quarks, the experimental evidence we have for them and how this strange topsy-turvey force works the way it does (and, by the way, gives protons and neutrons 95% of their mass - take that, Higgs!) is excellent. It's by far the best explanation I've ever seen. Not entirely surprising when you realise that Frank Wilczek won his Nobel Prize for 'the discovery of asymptotic freedom in the theory of the strong interaction.' And asymptotic freedom is the rather clumsy name (Wilczek apologies for it in the book) for this odd way that the force increases as the quarks try to separate.

The other reason this book is excellent is that it gives a real insight into the kind of mental world modern theoretical physicists occupy. Once Wilczek gets going on what he calls 'the Grid' (because, he says, 'the Matrix' was spoiled as a name by the sequel movies), he is both dazzling and worrying. You might have thought that the ether went out with Maxwell and Einstein, but Wilczek shows how quantum field theorists postulate a whole multilayered collection of ethers filling space, from the assorted quantum fields to strange concepts of universe-filling condensates. I don't know if it's the impression he intended to give, but it really did come across to me as if modern theoretical physicists live in a fantasy world of mathematics which only occasionally touches base with reality when it happens to fit rather well with specific observations. The intention was, I think to show how this viewpoint is inevitable, but instead what comes across to me it that it feels like an abstraction with inevitable parallels with reality but that feels horribly like a house of cards.

Less effective are Wilczek's explanations once he gets away from quarks. I think I understand symmetry, at least to undergraduate physics level, but Wilczek's example that was supposed to show how symmetry worked for beginners totally lost me once he started talking about squeezing the sides of triangles. This, and much of the field theory explanations came across as someone who understood the topic so well that he didn't understand how to explain it to people who don't. It was more like a magician waving his hands at the end of a trick and saying 'So that's how it's done,' without revealing the actual mechanism.

Another slight problem was the writing style which tended to a kind of pompous joviality that I found rather wearing. Here's an example:
So: fully aware of the difficulties but undaunted, heroes of physics gird their loins, apply for grants, buy clusters of computers, solder, program, debug, even think - whatever it takes to wrest answers from the Grid pandemonium.
It's bearable, but hard work sometimes. So a definite recommendation, but with some significant reservations. You have been warned.
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Reading a single book about Mass, Ether and the Unification of Forces is never going to provide a grounding in the fundamental theories behind these concepts. Instead, this book conveys an impression of how these topics might appear if you were already familiar with the science.

It does so remarkably well; much better than a host of other books along similar lines. Frank Wilczek has a master's touch in conveying how the world looks to someone who thinks about it in terms of grids, fields and symmetries rather than of fundamental particles which he shows to emerge as inevitable consequences.

The author is an expert who has made fundamental contributions to the subject of quantum chromodynamics, but it takes more than that to write such an excellent book as this. He has a fluent, at times humorous, at times philosophical, style. And his impressions of nuclear regions a million times beyond nanotechnology are conveyed as if by someone who had actually been there, at least in imagination.
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9 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on 18 March 2009
A poetically beautiful distillate of the book essence appears on the cover ..."The Lightness of Being reveals a universe where matter is the hum of strange music, mass doesn't weigh, and empty space is a multilayered, multicolored, superconductor."

The writing of the author exudes intelligence: it is simple but profound, concise, clear and witty. The book, however, is not an easy reading because it is inherently conceptually difficult and counterintuitive. As the author elegantly explains human beings evolved (in the Darwinian sense) to cope in our own level of measure to enable us to survive and procreate and not to react to the weird microcosmos of the quantal wave function that is at distances 10 in the minus 14 cm and times at 10 in the minus 24 second.

The book presents the nature of physical reality as revealed in the last 25 years of research which the author contributed in defining. Additionally it traces the evolution in Physics and its landmarks from the seventeenth century revolution and Isaac Newton's mathematical laws of motion and gravity; to the publication of Maxwell's equations in 1864 reconciling electric and magnetic fields;to the 1899 theory of quanta by Max Planck; to Einstein's theory of special relativity in 1905 postulating symmetry that is that the laws of physics should take the same form after boosting everything appearing in them by the same constant velocity; a major result of which is that there is a limiting velocity:the speed of light;to Einstein's 1917 general theory of relativity, essentially a field-based theory of gravity;to quantum electrodynamics (QED), the version of electrodynamics incorporating quantum theory and to quantum chromodynamics (QCD), the theory that describes the activity of color gluon fields, including their responses to color charges and currents. We are also intimated of the role of particle accelerators in detecting exotic particles, the concept and role of symmetry and supersymmetry and its predictive value in particle physics and the attempt at the unification of the forces of nature namely the strong and weak nuclear forces, electromagnetism and gravity;the last being the obstacle to unification because of its feebleness compared to the other forces and productive ways in overcoming it.

The primary reality is what was previously conceived as empty space which the author names the Grid and which in fact is teeming with activity, spawning everything else, of which matter is a secondary manifestation. The primary physical reality is a multifaceted concept:

The primary ingredient of physical reality, from which all else is formed, fills space and time. Each fragment, each space-time element, has the same basic properties as every other fragment. The primary ingredient of reality is alive with quantum activity. Quantum activity has special characteristics. It is spontaneous and unpredictable. And to observe quantum activity, you must disturb it. The primary ingredient of reality also contains enduring material components. These make the cosmos a multilayered, multicolored, superconductor. The primary ingredient of reality contains a metric field that gives space-time rigidity and causes gravity. The primary ingredient of reality weighs, with a universal density.

With the aid of elegant equations and powerful computers is was possible to determine precisely the mass of protons and neutrons that form atomic nuclei from quarks and gluons that are massless (gluons) or nearly so (quarks). The equations of QCD Output Mass without Mass.

Protons and neutrons form atomic nuclei which have positive charge and account for more than 99.99% of the mass though they have a radius of 10 in the minus 5 of atoms which are formed with the addition of negatively charged electrons.

Protons, neutrons, electrons and photons comprise normal matter that is the matter of the visible universe.

Normal matter is about 5% of the mass of the universe as a whole;the remaining 95% contains at least two components, called dark energy and dark matter. Dark energy contributes about 70% of the mass. It is observed through the gravitational influence on the motion of normal matter. Dark energy seems to be uniformly distributed throughout space, with density that is also constant in time. Dark matter contributes 25% of the mass. It too has been observed through its gravitational influence on the motion of normal matter. Dark matter is not uniformly distributed in space, nor its density constant in time. Around every galaxy there is an extended halo of dark matter. Its density is typically a million times less than that of normal matter.

In conclusion the book is profoundly important and exceptionally well written combining deep insight, clarity, economy, and an unmistakeable sense of the essential reflecting the profound, original and penetrating intellect of its author.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 4 February 2013
Best. You'll get it. Pumpkins. Could have had more pictures to explain the diagrams. Freedom. It's a very strange place inside this mans head.
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