books book reviews

Non-mathematical physics books

reviewed by T. Nelson


Particles, Fields and Forces:
A Conceptual Guide to Quantum Field Theory and the Standard Model

by Wouter Schmitz
Springer, 2019, 329 pages
reviewed by T. Nelson

I f you've been looking for a book on the Higgs boson, quantum chromodynamics, and quantum field theory that explains the concepts clearly but with no math, you've hit the jackpot!

Wouter Schmitz uses metaphors for everything without oversimplifying it much. He explains why, if you traveled at the speed of light, a voyage to anywhere in the universe would seem instantaneous to you; without a finite light velocity, we would have no concept of distance. He explains wave/particle duality, energy levels and virtual photons very effectively, and even answers questions like why neutrons appear to be stable in the nucleus but not in free space, how symmetry creates a force, how gluons and quarks interact, and how symmetry breaking creates mass in the Higgs mechanism, all with no math. It's the perfect book for any non-physicist or anyone who wants an intuitive explan­ation of what those page-long equations in QFT books actually mean.

He also says there was almost no mass in the universe until 10−12 seconds after the Big Bang, when symmetry-breaking occurred and the Higgs boson was created.

Admittedly, there are a few quirks: Schmitz gives the wrong impression by saying that antiparticles literally move backwards in time; most other books merely comment that this is an ‘alternative way of looking at it.’ His English isn't perfect, he's got a whopper of a typo on page 202 about the age of the universe, and he uses upside-down characters instead of overbars to represent antiparticles. And in many cases, the metaphors he uses are stretched almost to the breaking point. But on the plus side, there's no math.

All this may be deliberate. If you find yourself needing a beer to cure your headache, perhaps saying please, just a little math! to help you make sense of all these metaphorical Möbius strips and similes of springs within springs, it's a good sign that maybe you're now understanding why nobody ever explains things this way, and you're ready for the hard stuff. Color graphs and diagrams throughout.

Get this book!

dec 27 2019


Fundamental Forces of Nature:
The Story of Gauge Fields

by Kerson Huang
World Scientific, 2007, 270 pages
reviewed by T. Nelson

I 'm not sure who the reader is for this book. It's a light history of the ideas behind modern particle physics, focusing on gauge theory. I learned a few things, and it's an important topic, but the concepts are presented without making their historical or scientific context clear enough for the type of person who's likely to read this book.

For example, he talks about the Dirac sea, a long-abandoned concept that Dirac invented to justify the existence of antimatter, as if physicists still accept it. He talks about massless neutrinos, even after casually mentioning that there's no such thing. He throws in equations that aren't derived, used, or explained. He pulls group arithmetic out of thin air.

Then there's the part where he calls the three quark ‘colors’ red, yellow, and green. Everybody else calls them red, green, and blue. It's not arbitrary. The whole idea was that free quanks with color charge can't exist; they must combine in specific ways to become colorless.

For example, the combination of three quarks R+G+B can exist in a free state because the sum of red, green, and blue is 'white'. The combination of a red and antired quark RR can exist (as a meson) because the color charges cancel out. Put 'yellow' in there and the metaphor doesn't work. It's almost as if the author doesn't care whether readers get the concept or not.

None of this would bother an advanced reader (who's not going to read this book), but these things would baffle a beginner trying to understand QCD or gauge fields or why symmetry breaking is important.

jan 01 2020