Sunday, August 24, 2008

Amid the debris of spontaneous symmetry breaking

This is how to write pop-sci: Select a theme, a Big Idea, but let it flow naturally from the subject. Dumb it down, but not enough to give the reader a false sense of understanding. Keep your anecdotes few and relevant. After too many Wisdom of Crowds-type books that violate all of the above, it is refreshing to find Fearful Symmetry - The Search for Beauty in Modern Physics by Anthony Zee. Zee aims to present not the details but the flavor of 20th century physics. His two central concepts, symmetry and group theory, are both simpler and more difficult than the formula-oriented physics most of us remember from school, allowing a randomly educated amateur like me to enjoy the book without giving me the idea that I know the first thing about physics. Which is how it should be. Written in 1986, Fearful Symmetry says almost nothing about string theory, and that's not really a weakness. One step at a time. In line with the Blake reference, Zee refers liberally to Him (the ultimate creator) and Her (mother nature) throughout the book, which is an unintrusive figure of speech, but it also reflects a deism that evades the question of why there are such beautiful patterns in physics in the first place. When all your explanations for a Mystery are bad ones, ("somebody just made it that way"), it may be best not to explain it at all.

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