From molecules to stars, much of the cosmic canvas can be painted in brushstrokes of primary color: the protons, neutrons, and electrons we know so well. But for meticulous detail, we have to dip into exotic hues—leptons, mesons, hadrons, quarks. Bringing particle physics to life as few authors can, Jeremy Bernstein here unveils nature in all its subatomic splendor.
In this graceful account, Bernstein guides us through high-energy physics from the early twentieth century to the present, including such highlights as the newly discovered Higgs boson. Beginning with Ernest Rutherford’s 1911 explanation of the nucleus, a model of atomic structure emerged that sufficed until the 1930s, when new particles began to be theorized and experimentally confirmed. In the postwar period, the subatomic world exploded in a blaze of unexpected findings leading to the theory of the quark, in all its strange and charmed variations. An eyewitness to developments at Harvard University and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, Bernstein laces his story with piquant anecdotes of such luminaries as Wolfgang Pauli, Murray Gell-Mann, and Sheldon Glashow.
Surveying the dizzying landscape of contemporary physics, Bernstein remains optimistic about our ability to comprehend the secrets of the cosmos—even as its mysteries deepen. We now know that over eighty percent of the universe consists of matter we have never identified or detected. A Palette of Particles draws readers into the excitement of a field where the more we discover, the less we seem to know.
Physicist Jeremy Bernstein pays homage to the subatomic, tinting particles according to era of discovery. So electrons, neutrons and neutrinos are assigned primary colors; the muons through to quarks, secondary colors; and the Higgs boson, neutrino cosmology and squarks, tachyons and the graviton, pastels. The abstractions come alive as Bernstein meshes history and science with anecdotes on everyone from Murray Gell-Mann to Richard Feynman. A colorful chronicle backed by 50 years in the field.
[Bernstein] brings to this popular history of particle physics the advantage of having been around when some of that history was being made. Bernstein, now in his 80s, knew Wolfgang Pauli, who hypothesized the existence of the neutrino in 1930, a quarter-century before it could be confirmed...Bernstein covers the material in a sprightly manner, with only the occasional equation that will reveal the beauty of it all to the reader who can grasp it...It turns out that Bernstein's sober and lucid introduction to particle physics has an almost mystical quality, even if the author shows no interest in that kind of cosmic thinking.
[Bernstein] pares away most of [the mathematical] complexities, thereby allowing general readers to share in the excitement of epoch-making science without shouldering the burden of rigorous analysis. Not merely lucid, Bernstein's exposition is refreshingly human, sprinkled with anecdotes revealing the piquant personalities of pioneering scientists including Einstein, Pauli, and Gell-Mann. A must-read for armchair physicists.
Overall, it is a pleasant, short read, and a reminder of the past century-and-a-half crusade at the forefront of modern physics.
Few will resist [Bernstein's] accounts of the history, flamboyant geniuses (many of whom he knew personally), and basics of protons, neutrons and electrons that make up the familiar world.
Casting subatomic particles across a metaphorical painter’s palette, Bernstein blends science, history, and anecdote (including his own work on staff at Harvard University and Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study) to reveal the lively, often bewildering world of particle physics… Bernstein is an unabashed romantic, fondly recalling the tabletop experiments of the mid-20th century (he’s worked in the field for more than 50 years). Later discoveries, especially the Higgs—coaxed to visibility with powerful accelerators and computer analysis—remain, in the author’s estimation, coldly ‘abstract.’ For Bernstein and for readers, the true wonder lies in how each discovery reveals yet another mystery.
The real appeal of A Palette of Particles…[is] Bernstein’s infectious love not only for the mysteries of physics but also for the minds behind the magic. The stories and photos of physicists in action—especially that of Wolfgang Pauli and Niels Bohr, two venerable fathers of physics, bent over to watch the spinning of a child’s top—bring physics to life in a way that equations simply can’t.
This is a superb little book. No one, with the possible exception of Freeman Dyson, writes so gracefully about physics and its recent history, or so effectively inserts himself into the story without self-advertisement.
- 224 pages
- 4-3/8 x 7-1/8 inches
- Belknap Press
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