Physicist and prolific author Bernstein (Quantum Leaps, 2009, etc.) applies his fine talents to this short but not simplified overview of subatomic particles.
Using an artist’s palette as an analogy, the author explains that the visible universe is made up of primary colors: familiar, long-lived particles detectable with simple instruments. J.J. Thomson discovered the electron in 1896 with a magnet and a cathode ray tube. Between 1911 and 1917, Ernest Rutherford’s men discovered the proton by aiming radium emissions at various targets. Other primaries include the neutron, the photon and the not-so-easily detectable neutrino. That was how matters stood in the 1930s when technical advances turned up a torrent of odd colors: unstable, short-lived particles. In the 1950s, physicists grumbled at a seemingly endless series of pions, mesons, sigmas and lambdas, but matters improved in 1964 when Murray Gell-Mann and George Zweig theorized that these plus the proton and neutron consisted of fundamental elements called quarks. In the 1970s, experiments confirmed this, resulting in the “standard model,” a fairly good explanation of subatomic particles and their interactions. Everyone cheered the 2012 discovery of the Higgs particle, the last undiscovered element in standard model theory, but everyone agreed that the model needs work. It doesn’t incorporate gravity into particle interactions and says nothing about dark matter or the accelerating expansion of the universe revealed by dark energy.
Bernstein delves into some areas that will flummox beginners, but few will resist his accounts of the history, flamboyant geniuses (many of whom he knew personally), and basics of protons, neutrons and electrons that make up the familiar world.