How did we end up in “a nonbland universe full of structure” instead of somewhere else? No one can yet say: that’s the organizing principle of this lively, agnostic book on physics and its discontents.
Cham, an online cartoonist with a doctorate in robotics, and Whiteson (Experimental Particle Physics/Univ. of California, Irvine), who conducts research at the Large Hadron Collider, combine forces to explore all the things that we cannot say with any confidence about the universe in which we live, an engaging conceit for a book that wears its considerable learning lightly. One question is what the universe is made of, most of it what physicists call “dark matter” or “dark energy”—in fact, only about 5 percent of it is anything we can explain with our current knowledge. “Most of the universe is made of something else”: quite a daunting concept, and by the time Cham and Whiteson get around to explaining what happens, quantum mechanistically speaking, when a particle meets its antiparticle, it’s mind-bogglingly complex. That’s where the cartoons come in. Though the authors are occasionally silly—the notion of filling space with cilantro being one such moment—the overarching spirit is one of helpfulness. After reading this book, general readers without much background in physics will be able to speak knowledgeably about, for example, how quarks relate to leptons. But with a proviso, bearing in mind the book’s premise: yes, with up and down quarks we can make neutrons and protons, but what do the other nine of the dozen known particles do? Write the authors, “why are they there? We have no idea.” Indeed, we do not, but Cham and Whiteson brightly foresee a time in which we have the answers and “today’s philosophy questions are tomorrow’s precision science experiments.”
An entertaining and educational review for anyone seeking to brush up on or build his or her knowledge—or, perhaps better, lack of knowledge.