Guest Review: “Atom Land”

Atom Land: A Guided Tour Through The Strange (And Impossibly Small) World Of Particle Physics, by Jon Butterworth

Review by Steve Richards

Atom Land offers expeditions of discovery, challenging both imagination and physical sense of reality. Author Jon Butterworth is a professor of physics and astronomy. In the strange and counterintuitive territories of particle physics, acting as travel agent and guide, he takes us in vehicles of analogy and metaphor.

Hoping to travel light, Butterworth sets aside the baggage of higher math. He keeps a few equations in notes, for those who want that excursion, while emphasizing the math is not necessary to enjoy the scenery. The landscape of the stuff we are made of has changed dramatically in less than a century. Science continues to zoom in for a closer look. Making the abstract details seem more touchable and familiar invites us to attempt the journey.

Each time fundamental particles – the smallest building blocks – are identified, nagging questions point out even smaller details. Quantum particles take every opportunity to be weird.  Yet there are remarkable consistencies, called symmetries. These guide objective descriptions, from the tiniest to the entire universe. When those consistencies seem broken, they beg questions that call us to next explorations. That is how science progresses. It is a quest for a Standard Model – a “theory of everything.”

Part of the fun comes from whimsical names given to fantastic new game pieces. “Common sense” can be deceptive. “Reality” depends very much on our point of view and how we ask our questions. Objects and energy can be both particles and waves. Time and gravity are not as constant as we think. Some of the fuzzy critters we meet are called by flavors and colors.

While all this weirdness helps us to be more precise, there is good news. For everyday purposes our common understanding remains good enough. Yet, we benefit from powerful new technologies and tools that we don’t have to fully understand.

Among the continuing discoveries, we are pulled to exercise our courageous imagination and persistent curiosity. Is this a tour that you would like to book?

{Atom Land is more challenging than The Edge of the Sky (reviewed previously). Yet it makes a very abstract subject relatively accessible.}

Atom Land : A Guided Tour Through The Strange (And Impossibly Small) World Of Particle Physics / Jon Butterworth.

New York : The Experiment, [2018]

539.72 Butterworth