Longing for the Harmonies: Themes and Variations from Modern Physics. Frank Wilczek. W. W. Norton.

Longing for the Harmonies: Themes and Variations from Modern Physics Book Cover Longing for the Harmonies: Themes and Variations from Modern Physics
Frank Wilczek
W. W. Norton

Schrödinger’s cat sits poised, a playful symbol of the riddles of quantum mechanics… the bizarre behavior of the elusive subatomic particles known as “quarks” becomes a set of mating rules… the search for the identity of cosmic “dark matter” zeroes in upon several likely suspects, including the first particle named for a laundry detergent.

These tantalizing discoveries or inspired guesses of today’s physics, along with scores of other startling facts about the true nature of the universe we can only dimly see, are here brought into harmony with traditional physics by scientists Frank Wilczek and Betsy Devine. Devoted to sharing their own delight and awe before the fundamental mysteries of the cosmos, they also have a serious purpose: to reveal to the lay reader how a heightened perception can respond to timeless themes of the physical universe. For example, they show how even the most exotic theories always confirm that physical laws are precisely the same throughout the universe, even in galaxies so vastly far apart that they cannot possibly have been influenced by the same events. They explain how we have learned that the most massive molten stars and the tiniest frozen particle are in physical harmony.

In fact, the authors frequently use lively anecdotes to remind us that our expanded knowledge of the universe is the direct result of the lonely, determined (and often frustrating) work of gifted men and women throughout history. Einstein’s brilliant discoveries, for example, were followed by thirty years of stubborn theorizing that seemed to reach a dead end. Today, a thousand feet below the surface of the earth, scientists patiently watch a cold dark vat hoping to see what has never been seen – an example of proton decay;  the chances are getting slimmer, yet still they watch. But perhaps the most charming and instructive story of one person’s driven desire to comprehend at least a small part of physical paradox is Wilczek’s own frank recollection of his student years, when he found himself locked in a tight international race to discover the concept that made him famous, “asymptotic freedom.”

Part of the challenge to contemporary physicists is to explain the apparently improbable. The lesson of this book is that all explanations will eventually be found, if at all, only when men continues to engage in a careful dialogue with nature.

The gradual progress of these step-by-step, brief, graceful essays reflects the slow but implacable growth of our understanding of the myriad odd details that form a comprehensive, harmonious whole. In their depiction of the workings of the half-known universe, Wilczek and Devine bring all of us face-to-face with the beauty of eternal order and the inevitability of rational ends and beginnings.

Frank Wilczek is the Chancellor’s Professor of Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a permanent member of the Institute for Theoretical Physics. The author of more than one hundred scholarly papers, he is the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and has been named one of America’s 100 outstanding scientists under 40 by Science Digest.

Betsy Devine, who holds a Master of Science degree in engineering from Princeton University, is a freelance writer.