“Building blocks” can become stumbling blocks when physics becomes the topic of conversation, whether in classrooms or cocktail parties. But the very fact that people are genuinely intrigued by the Big Bang and Einstein, by the speed of light and dark matter, encourages writers to try to explain things.
Nobel Prize-winning physicist, former director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, and the mind that brainstormed Earth’s biggest machine—the Superconducting Supercollider—Leon Lederman is articulate, accessible, and a bit irascible. Like some self-effacing Carl Sagan, Lederman in THE GOD PARTICLE makes quantum physics seem not just important but understandable and fun.
Lederman does so with help. Big help. First, there’s God. Portrayed here in excerpts from “The Very New Testament” as a She with a sense of humor, God can’t stand the uniform symmetry of the universe and intervenes. (The God Particle of the title is the hypothetical and elusive key to the subatomic realm of quarks and neutrinos. Others have called the particle a Higgs scalar boson, from researcher Peter Higgs of the University of Edinburgh.) Besides the Divine Ms. G., there’s a human hero. From ancient Greece, Democritus is the real-life philosopher who started the search for the first God Particle (then dubbed an atomos).
With historical facts and metaphorical fantasies, Lederman and coauthor Dick Teresi compose a fanciful package that’s irreverent but engaging, substantive but light. Einstein is here, of course, but also Galileo and Newton and more contemporary colleagues, such as Carlo Rubbia (another Nobel Laureate) and George Smoot (the astronomer who described the 1992 detection of a clumpiness at the “edge” of the universe as “like seeing the face of God”).
Despite discussing particle physics and substitute theories about “superstrings,” Lederman is easy and breezy. Finally, he makes a few concessions: the more things seem comprehensible, the more it seems pointless; regardless of discoveries, scientists will continue on a never-ending quest for more minute pieces of reality; or one day we may “know it all” and settle on solving other problems, such as morning traffic jams.