Skip to main content

Mass - Jim Baggott *****

Jim Baggott is one of the UK's best popular science writers and never disappoints. As the book's name suggests, Mass is about what seems at first sight a straightforward and ordinary aspect of matter. It's just a property that stuff has that makes it behave in a certain way. But the further we get into the book, the less obvious the nature of mass becomes - as a reader, it can feel a little like following Alice down the rabbit hole.

We begin with a run through the history of our growing understanding of what matter is, and the nature of mass. Apart from repeating the myth that Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for supporting a heliocentric cosmology, this is fairly straightforward stuff, but then Baggott makes the interesting step of not just making the transition from a philosophical view to a scientific one, but continuing with the philosophy to include, for example, Kant's 'Ding an sich' or 'thing-in-itself' concept that underlines the way that we can't actually know reality, only our sensory responses and the models we build. There was a time when scientists were on the attack as far as philosophy is concerned (Stephen Hawking infamously declared philosophy to be 'dead' in The Grand Design), but in practice, with a concept like mass, that philosophical consideration is important and useful.

As he continues, Baggott takes us through relativity and its implications for mass to be dependent on frame of reference and quantum theory to underline our growing understanding of what stuff is, before coming to his coup de grace, where we find that mass is not that fundamental aspect of stuff that it appears to be, but is rather a combination of the interaction of quantum fields and an effect produced by energy. It's a neat inversion of our usual way of looking at mass and matter - beautifully well presented. Along the way, Baggott manages his usual trick of going into the physics to a slightly deeper level than is common in popular science coverage - for example, in his description of what is involved in the renormalisation used to get rid of infinities from quantum electrodynamics - while keeping the text mostly approachable.

If I have any criticism, I felt the skip through relativity didn't quite do the subject justice. It was too summary to really get a feel for it, but too detailed to be scene setting, making it one of the less interesting parts of the book, particularly if you've read anything on relativity before. That balance seemed to be handled better with quantum theory. I'd also say that towards the end, where we get into abstruse matters, there isn't quite enough explanation, so the reader is occasionally left thinking 'I don't see how you make that leap.' This seemed particularly true when talking about spontaneous symmetry breaking. There's a diagram showing how ice has lower symmetry than water that confuses rather than helps, and we are told that for spontaneous symmetry breaking to occur when water freezes 'we need to add something (impurities or inhomogeneities, in this case) to encourage it to happen.' A very reasonable reader response is 'If you have to add something, it certainly isn't spontaneous' - a problem that isn't addressed.

Despite a few points like this towards the end, for me the book was interesting throughout (I liked the business book style 'five things we learned' at the end of each chapter) and it encourages the reader to really think about the nature of matter and how something as apparently straightforward as mass is not what it seems. That delight in revealing the unexpected typifies, for me, the joy of physics.

Hardback:  

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…