Jul 19, 2006

deep down things

Every now and again a book comes out that utterly surprises me. Deep Down Things is one of those books. Why did it surprise me? Well first of all take a look at that book cover and the title and guess what this book is about. I've edited the subtitle of the book so there are no good hints. My first reaction to this book when it popped up on my Amazon recommended list was, "huh?". This was clearly a book about some new age philosophy at best. "Why are they recommending this drivel to me?", I thought.

I decided to at least read the notes on the book and discovered that the book was actually about particle physics. But I just couldn't get past the way the book looked or that title. At least a year went by of this thing popping up on the list. I eventually broke down after I realized I wasn't having much luck finding any other good science books to read.

This was a prudent move. DDT is a fantastic book. Most 'high-end' physics books, written for a general audience, rehash the same old shit. There's a ton of relativity and quantum content. I've read that stuff and studied that stuff and I don't really need any more at this point unless there is some new aspect it discusses. In general nothing really new is covered. And if new stuff is covered vast amounts of the book are dedicated to how wacky quantum mechanics is. Great. I get it. Quantum mechanics is wacky.

I have lots of other questions. What is a Higgs field? What is quantum field theory? What is the Standard Model? What is Gauge Theory? What about bosons and fermions? How were the weak force and the electromagnetic force unified? How do Feynman diagrams fit into all this? What are leptons? What is particle spin? Why are symmetries important? What exactly are up, down, top, bottom, strange, and charmed quarks all about?

These are natural questions hinted at in other books but rarely touched upon. Here, Schumm does much more than touch on them. He explains them. I can't tell you what a relief it is to understand these things now. But the book is good for reasons other than just the great content.

Schumm explains things succinctly. I don't really need a lot of extraneous prose to explain things. If I need to read a sentence five times, I'm okay with that. Don't dilly dally around. Get to the point. Schumm does this. He also doesn't dumb things down. Again I'm okay with having to sit there and think about a concept for a few minutes before moving on. Don't oversimplify if the subject matter is hard to understand. Schumm doesn't.

Schumm does one other thing that is rare. He tells you clearly what is not understood. He explains a particular topic right to the end, and then spends the extra time explaining what is just beyond and how we don't know the answers yet. For me this is huge. It is much easier to understand a topic if I understand the boundaries of knowledge. Otherwise I think someone is pulling the wool over my eyes.

The book, in a word, is tight. If you have an interest in these topics this is a perfect place to start.

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