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Symmetry and the Beautiful Universe Paperback – Nov 30 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
The concept of symmetry has seen increasing service in science popularizations as a metaphor to convey the intuitive appeal of physics, a vogue that continues in this dense treatise. Nobel Laureate Lederman (The God Particle) and theoretical physicist Hill deploy mathematical symmetry as a unifying theme in a tour of physics from Newton's laws to quarks and superstrings. Sometimes, as in a demonstration that the invariance of physical laws through time implies the law of conservation of energy, this approach yields insights. But usually, as in their confusing exposition of special relativity, symmetry considerations get in the way. The authors keep things readable with lots of physics-for-poets bits, including some tie-ins to environmentalism, comparisons of modern cosmology with ancient Greek myths, and a fictional dialogue—partly in Italian—between two newlywed physicists and Galileo's ghost. Unfortunately, symmetry is a forbiddingly abstract branch of mathematics that was peripheral to the development of much of physics and gives little tangible feel for its substance, and the point where it becomes indispensable to discussions of modern physics is also the tipping point where the book, like many others, topples into total incomprehensibility to laypeople. Readers who think symmetry implies clarity and grace will be disappointed. Photos.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
"A tour de force of physics made simple...."
— Times Literary Supplement
“Few books about modern physics are as fascinating, far-ranging, and readable as this. It would be appreciated by anyone interested in the nature of science and the beauty of the universe…."
— NSTA Recommends
"A compelling and accessible discussion….”
— Science Books & Films
Top Customer Reviews
The appendix provides detailed step-by-step explanation of how symmetry groups work.
A little history and philosophy is thrown in too. An example which I found interesting is how long ago was it realised that light had a finite speed? I found the answer surprising.
Although the writing style is light, the subject matter is certainly not "dumbed down". I recommend this book to anyone who has a more than casual interest in physics.
The problem though is that this knowledge was gleaned through the hard work and creativity of mental giants, using abstract tools of higher math on one hand and giant atom smashers on the other.
Pity then the writer who tries to convey the essence of the findings to the reader who has familiarity with neither.
But the two authors here have done a good job. I had some trouble following a few passages. But this is more than made up for in the rest of the book by the lucid descriptions and explanations of how symmetry goes to the core of the latest discoveries in physics. It really is a beautiful universe. And although this book may leave a few mysteries not completely explained, think of it as an invitation to explore further!
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The first few chapters deal with symmetries of space and time and their relation to the conservation of momentum and energy. Fascinating stories like that about perpetual motion machines abound, and there are personal vignettes like one about Amalia Noether, a young lady who discovered the deeper connection between symmetries and physical laws and still suffered trials and tribulations as a woman seeking an academic position.
Hill and Lederman take on the task of describing symmetries throughout physics, from classical mechanics to quantum mechanics, all the way to modern topics of particle physics. The book is intended for readers at an advanced high-school level or non-physics majors at university. Chapter 6, for instance, gives a refreshing account of the law of inertia- how it was formulated (incorrectly) by the ancient Greeks, later to be discovered by Galileo and to become a basic postulate in the relativity theory.
Relativity is expounded upon in Ch. 7, whereby full appreciation of its contents requires some guidance. Other chapters describe
e.g., symmetries of quarks and leptons, which currently stimulate public imagination. This is, in fact, the intent of the authors, "...to [motivate and] convince high school science teachers to include some of the important concepts of symmetry in the core disciplines of phyics, chemistry and biology" and to use it as a text/reference book. Their purpose is well-served, especially by the many anecdotes and numerical estimates that make the book easily approachable for the reader.
Through the course of the text, the history of discoveries in physics is described, giving all contributors from Aristarchis, Galileo and Newton, to Einstein, Feynman and Guth, among others, their just due. That it has been a globe effort is evident from the source nationalities of these intellects, as diverse as Scotland and Japan. The narration clearly illustrates that good science is the result of the cumulative efforts of many different individuals, from many different cultures throughout history.
Interesting too is that the book's basic starting point is the intellectual contribution of a brilliant female mathemation, Amalia Noether, working at about the same time and in the same country as the better known Einstein. It is her theory of symmetry in physics, worked out in mathematical theorems, that created a major connecting link between physics and mathematics. Although the book is not in depth enough to actually make her contribution clearer than "Noether's Theorum," her discoveries are obviously at the core of the entire movement in modern physics. It's nice to know that my old high school math teacher, who so disparaged the math abilities of his female students was wrong, wrong, wrong.
The book is well conceived in its presentation of the information. It begins with the earliest efforts of the ancient Greeks and Romans to understand the workings of nature. Their concepts, sometimes startlingly close to the truth, served as the starting point for later researchers. The character of physics as a discipline is presented from a Newtonian perspective in the earlier portions of the book, and I have to say, while it does not bog one down in detailed formulae, it makes much more sense of basic physics than many books do.
The next few chapters deal with Einstein and Bohr, relativity and quantum mechanics. Probably no other book I've read on these subjects has done as good a job of pulling the whole thing together; particularly the authors manage to connect the concepts of Newtonian and modern physics more clearly for the reader. While many books have attempted to do this, often it seems as though the authors make the assumption that the reader will see how the two are connected and hop from one topic to the next without connecting comments. Lederman and Hill put the entire thing out there for the student, assuming that it is not obvious how the two are connected. This description is in fact the bulk of the book.
The last pages of the book are dedicated to a detailed description of the more recent contributions to physics, particularly the theories relating to sub-atomic particles and their interactions and the concepts behind the Feynman diagrams. I have to admit that this aspect of physics has always been the most confusing to me. The authors went a good distance to clearing up some of the questions I had about the topic. This is, however, the most complex discussion in the book, and one that I will doubtless have to re-read before I am entirely comfortable with it.
A superb book on modern physics, one that I'll re-read. I suggest that it be used as an introductory text to high school physics classes, since it makes the details of Newtonian physics usually taught at this level clearer and introduces advanced physics in a more understandable form.
When they get to Chapter 8, they do a very good job of explaining mirror reflections and handedness in everyday life, but they give no hint of what this has to do with the idea of parity in particle physics, the subject of the chapter. And that's pretty much how it goes for the rest of the book, i.e. for most of 20th-century physics.
I'm not complaining about that; understanding the physics requires knowledge of a few fields of rather advanced mathematics. For what they do - giving an impression of physics to non-scientists - they do better than any of the many other books and articles I have read. For example, they show how Galileo's principle or relativity connects with Einstein and why the wave equation of electrons means that their interactions must be quantized. And I recommend the appendix on group theory; it is an excellent introduction to how mathematics can be abstracted to apply to new situations. (For an idea of my math background, click on my name, above.)
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