Book Review — The Universe Speaks in Numbers

Let’s say that back in the day, as a budding grad student in chemistry you had to take quantum mechanics to see where those atomic orbitals came from.   Say further, that as the years passed you knew enough to read News and Views in Nature and Perspectives in Science concerning physics as they appeared. So you’ve heard various terms like J/Psi, Virasoro algebra, Yang Mills gauge symmetry, Twisters, gluons, the Standard Model, instantons, string theory, the Atiyah Singer theorem etc. etc.  But you have no coherent framework in which to place them.

Then “The Universe Speaks in Numbers” by Graham Farmelo is the book for you.  It will provide a clear and chronological narrative of fundamental physics up to the present.  That isn’t the main point of the book, which is an argument about the role of beauty and mathematics in physics, something quite contentious presently.  Farmelo writes well and has a PhD in particle physics (1977) giving him a ringside seat for the twists and turns of  the physics he describes.  People disagree with his thesis (http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=11012) , but nowhere have I seen anyone infer that any of Farmelo’s treatment of the physics described in the book is incorrect.

40 years ago, something called the Standard Model of Particle physics was developed.  Physicists don’t like it because it seems like a kludge with 19 arbitrary fixed parameters.  But it works, and no experiment and no accelerator of any size has found anything inconsistent with it.  Even the recent discovery of the Higgs, was just part of the model.

You won’t find much of the debate about what physics should go from here in the book.  Farmelo says just study more math.  Others strongly disagree — Google Peter Woit, Sabine Hossenfelder.

The phenomena String theory predicts would require an accelerator the size of the Milky Way or larger to produce particles energetic enough to probe it.  So it’s theory divorced from any experiment possible today, and some claim that String Theory has become another form of theology.

It’s sad to see this.  The smartest people I know are physicists.  Contrast the life sciences, where experiments are easily done, and new data to explain arrives weekly.

 

 

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