The science editor of the Dallas Morning News turns from the digital information frontier (The Bit and the Pendulum, 2000) to a penetrating study of how some of the most brilliant scientific minds have perceived and anticipated reality.
The anticipation comes early and often in the first half, which deals with the bewildering world inside the atom: particle physics and quantum mechanics. Siegfried uses the notion of “prediscovery” to recount how using mathematics time and again has enabled researchers with vision to postulate the existence of elemental particles, the basic building blocks of matter itself, that would not be confirmed by experiment or observation until years or even decades later. What could have been a brutally dry exercise is enlivened by the author’s ability to get inside the heads of those who made the discoveries as he draws on both personal interviews and years of research. Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, and all the other legends are here, but so are lesser-known luminaries like Paul Dirac and Carl Anderson, who stared at the same sets of numbers as others had but were able to divine entirely new ideas from them. The author’s ability to connect with original acts of “doing the math” pays off, for example when the fact that an equation has square root components (possibly negative numbers) suggests not only that a particle could have “negative energy” but ultimately the concept of antimatter. By the latter part of the 20th century, as predicted new particles begin to leap out of accelerators nearly every other day and quantum mechanics takes on a circus atmosphere with heady concepts like mirror-matter and super symmetry piling on top of each other, some readers will need all the help they can get. Most should be much better equipped to grapple with cosmology and its enduring mysteries in the latter parts.
Laudable effort to bridge the gap between ordinary readers and science at its weirdest.