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Lightness of Being

The Lightness of Being

Mass, Ether, and the Unification of Forces

by Frank Wilczek

Basic Books, Copyright 2008

292 pages, hardcover

Review by Jim Walker

Frank WIlczek won a Nobel prize (along with David Gross and H. David Politzer) for their discovery of asymptotic freedom in the theory of the strong interaction, an important development of quantum chromodynamics (QCD).

Asymptotic freedom holds that the force between quarks becomes weaker at ever-decreasing distances (thus they behave almost like free particles), and conversely, as the distance increases the force increases, and would approach infinity if they became too far separated (which is why no one has detected quarks all by themselves).

Years ago, I remember arguing with a friend about absolutes where he proposed an absolute that can never be broken, namely, that a part can never be greater than the whole. I reported to him the discovery about quark properties and their apparent ability to increase force as they separate from each other, so much so, that they would exceed the forces of the proton itself. This, in some sense, appears to give an example of a part that can exceed the whole (in terms of force anyway). At the time, I did not know about Wilczek so when I heard that he had discovered this property of quarks and had written a book on the subject, I had to read it. This review comes almost two years past publication but better late than never.

Although Wilczek grew up in the Roman Catholic faith, he now considers himself agnostic. He still has a fondness for the Church, so this book should not offend Christians. In fact Wilczek cites Father James Malley for a Jesuit Credo that states: "It is more blessed to ask forgiveness than permission." I had a laugh at this because it reminded me of a joke by Emo Philips: "When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realized that the Lord doesn't work that way so I stole one and asked Him to forgive me."

Wilczek says that "as I learned more about science, some of the concepts and explanations in the ancient sacred texts came to seem clearly wrong; and as I learned more about history and historiography (the recording of history), some of the stories in those texts came to seem very doubtful." This provides yet another example of how scientific education can change religious views toward a more secular, agnostic, or even an atheist viewpoint.

This thought provoking book breaks many assumptions about sub-atomic particles, including bringing back the concept of the ether in the form of what Wilczek calls the Grid (the persistence of Ether). Empty space, to Wilczek, appears as a medium whose activity molds the world. In Chapter 8, he lists answers that modern physics provides, some of which include, "The primary ingredient of physical realty, from which all else is formed, fills space and time," "Every fragment, each space-time element, has the same basic properties as every other fragment," The primary ingredient of reality is alive with quantum activity. . . it is spontaneous and unpredictable. "The primary ingredient of reality weighs, with a universal density." Heavy stuff!

Wilczek wrote this book for the layperson, so you won't find many mathematical formulas or quantum logic explanations, even though Wilczek appears itching to include more. No doubt his editors told him to keep it simple so as to not scare off nonscientists. The book contains short chapters, so it provides good stopping points from which to contemplate what Wilczek attempts to explain. I confess that I did not understand a lot of what he wrote, but the fault does not rest with Wilczek but rather with the limits of the English language (and my limited knowledge of quantum theory). I realize that no amount of English can ever explain quantum mechanics (math is the language of physics, not English), so at best, Wilczek can only provide analogies, but he does it well and in an entertaining way that gets across a flavor of the complex ideas.

Other topics Wilczek addresses include the origin of mass, gravity, unification, and the LHC project. This book provides the reader with the latest views of quantum physics, and the difficulties this science presents. Don't expect an understanding of the quantum world, but it serves as a good read for a Sunday afternoon.


A few quotes from the book:

"Ah," I hear the traditional believer object, "but scientific study of the natural world does not reveal its meaning." To which I reply: Give it a chance. Science reveals some very surprising things about what the world is. Should you expect to understand what it means, before you know what it is?

An ordinary truth is a statement whose opposite is a falsehood. A profound truth is a statement whose opposite is also a profound truth.

In the framework of classical mechanics, no answer to the question "What is the origin of mass?" could possibly make sense. Trying to build massive objects from massless ones leads to contradictions.

It is energy, not mass, that is truly conserved.

In general, when you have moving bodies, or interacting bodies, energy and mass aren't proportional. E=mc² simply doesn't apply.

[T]here are good reasons to think that the very early universe, which we can't see directly, at least in ordinary light, was governed by essentially different laws.

No particle that has the properties of a single quark has ever been observed.

Now of course the interiors of protons don't really look like anything you've ever seen, or could see. . . so any visual representation of the ultrastrobonanomicroworld must be a mixture of caricature, metaphor, and cheat.

[O]ur quantum-mechanical theories predict that many results can emerge from the same cause.

Short-term unpredictability is, in the end, perfectly compatible with long-term precision.

The details of the construction are very hard to convey in words. It really is, as the Grook says, "easier done than said," and if you want to see it done for real, with equations, you'll have to look at technical articles or textbooks.

[W]e know a lot, too--enough to draw some surprising conclusions that go beyond piecemeal facts. They address, and offer some answers to, questions that have traditionally been regarded as belonging to philosophy or even theology.

For natural philosophy, the most important lesson we learn from QCD is that what we perceive as empty space is in reality a powerful medium whose activity molds the world.

The theory based on particles moving though empty space gave way, not the theory based on continuous, space-filling fields. Maxwell's field equations were not modified by the special theory of relativity; on the contrary, they supplied its foundation.

[A] reformed ether, that looks the same to observers moving at a constant velocity relative to one another, is the natural setting for special relativity.

And if light travels in lumps of energy and momentum, what could be more natural than to consider these lumps--and light itself--to be particles of electromagnetism? Fields might be more convenient, as we'll see.

Einstein thought that these developments--the ether had become counterintuitive, and it seemed to take form, physically, only in lumps--together made a strong case for abandoning fields and going back to particles.

By 1920, after he developed the theory of general relativity, Einstein's attitude had changed: "More careful reflection teaches us, however, that the special theory of relatively does not compel us to deny either."

Besides the fluctuating activity of quantum fields, space is filled with several layers of more permanent, substantial stuff. These are ethers in something closer to the original spirit of Aristotle and Descartes--they are materials that fill space.

Thus we come to suspect that the entity we call empty space is an exotic kind of superconductor.

As you can probably tell, I'm a field man.

[T]he past has a sort of existence within minds, as present memory (as does of course the future, as present expectations). Thus the existence of a past depends on the existence of minds, and there can be no "before" in the absence of minds. Before minds were created, there was no before!

The concept of Grid density is essentially the same as Einstein's cosmological term, which is essentially the same as "dark energy."

Solving the equations tell us both what exists and how it behaves.

On the face of it, this "spooky action-at-a-distance," to use Einstein's phrase, seems capable of transmitting information (telling the second spin which way it must point) faster than the speed of light. But that's an illusion, because to get two qubits into a definite state we had to start with them close together.

They're demonstrated the origin of the proton's mass, and thereby the lioness's share of our mass. I believe this is one of the greatest scientific achievements of all time.

[Q]uarks but not electrons feel the strong force; electrons and quarks, but not photons or color gluons, feel the electromagnetic force.

Instead of motion through ordinary space with a constant velocity, supersymmetry involves motion into new dimensions!

What happens to a body when it moves in the quantum dimensions isn't that it gets displaced--there's no notion of distance out there--instead, its spin changes. The "superboosts" turn particles with a given amount of intrinsic spin into particle with a different amount of spin.

[T]hat stuff, normal matter, contributes only about 5% of the mass of the universe as a whole!

The remaining 95% contains at least two components, called dark energy and dark matter.

Rather than speaking of galaxies as objects with haloes, it might be more appropriate to speak of the normal-matter galaxy as an impurity in the dark matter.

Steven Weinberg and I, independently, showed that the expanded equations predict the existence of new, very light, very weekly interacting particles called axions. Axions are also serious candidates to provide the cosmological dark matter.

If you doubled the electron's mass, all atoms would contract to half their size; if you halved the electron's mass, all atoms would expand to twice their size.

[W]e don't have a reliable theory for what the Grid superflows are made from.



About the Title

Reader's Guide

Part 1: The Origin of Mass

1 Getting to It

2 Newton's Zeroth Law

3 Einstein's Second Law

4 What Matters for Matter

5 The Hydra Within

6 The Bits Within the Its

7 Symmetry Incarnate

8 The Grid (Persistence of Ether)

9 Computing Matter

10 The Origin of Mass

11 Music of the Grid: A Poem in Two Equations

12 Profound Simplicity

Part 2: The Feebleness of Gravity

13 Is Gravity Feeble? Yes, in Practice

14 Is Gravity Feeble? No, in Theory

15 The Right Question

16 A Beautiful Answer

Part III: Is Beauty Truth?

17 Unification: The Siren's Song

18 Unification: Through a Glass, Darkly

19 Truthification

20 Unification: SUSY

21 Anticipating a New Golden Age

Epilogue: A Smooth Pebble, a Pretty Shell


Appendix A: Particles Have Mass, the World Has Energy

Appendix B: The Multilayered, Multicolored Cosmic Superconductor

Appendix C: From "Not Wrong" to (Maybe) Right



Illustration Credits


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The Lightness of Being