cover image Mass: The Quest to Understand Matter from Greek Atoms to Quantum Fields

Mass: The Quest to Understand Matter from Greek Atoms to Quantum Fields

Jim Baggott. Oxford Univ., $27.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-19-875971-3

“It seems so simple,” science writer Baggott (Origins: The Scientific Story of Creation) observes as he opens this helpful volume on the difficult concept of mass, “but what is matter exactly?” Earth, wind, fire, water—elements that the Greeks defined in terms of the invisible atom, “an entity that cannot be cut or divided”—scarcely begin to answer this mystery. In straightforward prose, Baggott deftly shows how the closer scientists looked, the more mass was unmade. When 18th-century chemists described “chemical substances in terms of the different chemical elements” that they contained, atoms ceased to be “objects of metaphysical speculation.” They are real and numerous—a veritable zoo of fundamental particles has since been discovered. Quantum mechanics redefined particles themselves with wave-particle duality. But it was Einstein’s equation E = mc2 that revealed the most startling thing yet: “Mass is not an intrinsic primary property of material substance,” but rather a behavior. “We’ve been convinced that it is matter that has energy,” Baggott writes, but it’s actually energy that has mass. Baggott smartly renders particle physics, typically a dense and opaque topic for the nonexpert, clear and captivating. Not only will readers grasp the building blocks of the standard model, they will forever look at mass differently. [em](Aug.) [/em]