A Palette of Particles

Jeremy Bernstein, Author
Jeremy Bernstein. Harvard/Belknap, $18.95 (236p) ISBN 978-0-674-07251-0
Reviewed on: 12/17/2012
Release date: 03/01/2013
Hardcover - 221 pages - 978-0-674-07362-3
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Casting subatomic particles across a metaphorical painter’s palette, Bernstein (Quantum Leaps) blends science, history, and anecdote (including his own work on staff at Harvard University and Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study) to reveal the lively, often bewildering world of particle physics. The primary colors of Bernstein’s palette are the electron, photon, neutron, proton, and neutrino, “the set that was in play until the 1930s.” Questions about what held the nucleus together (which Edward Teller described in a poem as the “nuclear glue”) and what constituted elementary particles lead to Bernstein’s “secondary colors,” including Hideki Yukawa’s mesons and Murray Gell-Mann’s whimsically named up, down, and strange quarks. At the palette’s outer reaches lie the mysterious “pastels” and the forces that shape our universe. These include the elusive Higgs boson, quantum gravity’s graviton, and the tachyons physicists posit move faster than the speed of light. Bernstein is an unabashed romantic, fondly recalling the tabletop experiments of the mid-20th century (he’s worked in the field for more than 50 years). Later discoveries, especially the Higgs—coaxed to visibility with powerful accelerators and computer analysis—remain, in the author’s estimation, coldly “abstract.” For Bernstein and for readers, the true wonder lies in how each discovery reveals yet another mystery. 11 halftones, 11 line drawings, 3 tables. (Mar.)
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