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Friday, August 25, 2006

Reading List: Fantastic Realities

Wilczek, Frank. Fantastic Realities. Singapore: World Scientific, 2006. ISBN 981-256-655-4.
The author won the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of “asymptotic freedom” in the strong interaction of quarks and gluons, which laid the foundation of the modern theory of Quantum Chromodynamics (QCD) and the Standard Model of particle physics. This book is an anthology of his writing for general and non-specialist scientific audiences over the last fifteen years, including eighteen of his “Reference Frame” columns from Physics Today and his Nobel prize autobiography and lecture.

I had eagerly anticipated reading this book. Frank Wilczek and his wife Betsy Devine are co-authors of the 1988 volume Longing for the Harmonies, which I consider to be one of the best works of science popularisation ever written, and whose “theme and variation” structure I adopted for my contemporary paper “The New Technological Corporation”. Wilczek is not only a brilliant theoretician, he has a tremendous talent for explaining the arcana of quantum mechanics and particle physics in lucid prose accessible to the intelligent layman, and his command of the English language transcends pedestrian science writing and sometimes verges on the poetic, occasionally crossing the line: this book contains six original poems!

The collection includes five book reviews, in a section titled “Inspired, Irritated, Inspired”, the author's reaction to the craft of reviewing books, which he describes as “like going on a blind date to play Russian roulette” (p. 305). After finishing this 500 page book, I must sadly report that my own experience can be summed up as “Inspired, Irritated, Exasperated”. There is inspiration aplenty and genius on display here, but you're left with the impression that this is a quickie book assembled by throwing together all the popular writing of a Nobel laureate and rushed out the door to exploit his newfound celebrity. This is not something you would expect of World Scientific, but the content of the book argues otherwise.

Frank Wilczek writes frequently for a variety of audiences on topics central to his work: the running of the couplings in the Standard Model, low energy supersymmetry and the unification of forces, a possible SO(10) grand unification of fundamental particles, and lattice QCD simulation of the mass spectrum of mesons and hadrons. These are all fascinating topics, and Wilczek does them justice here. The problem is that with all of these various articles collected in one book, he does them justice again, again, and again. Four illustrations: the lattice QCD mass spectrum, the experimentally measured running of the strong interaction coupling, the SO(10) particle unification chart, and the unification of forces with and without supersymmetry, appear and are discussed three separate times (the latter four times) in the text; this gets tedious.

There is sufficient wonderful stuff in this book to justify reading it, but don't feel duty-bound to slog through the nth repetition of the same material; a diligent editor could easily cut at least a third of the book, and probably close to half without losing any content. The final 70 pages are excerpts from Betsy Devine's Web log recounting the adventures which began with that early morning call from Sweden. The narrative is marred by the occasional snarky political comment which, while appropriate in a faculty wife's blog, is out of place in an anthology of the work of a Nobel laureate who scrupulously avoids mixing science and politics, but still provides an excellent inside view of just what it's like to win and receive a Nobel prize.

Posted at August 25, 2006 23:47