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The Infinity Puzzle

Basic Books
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Here is a sample of what one can find in the pages of The Infinity Puzzle by Frank Close:

[Ron] Shaw arrived [at Trinity College, Cambridge] in 1949 and moved into room K9, overlooking Jesus Lane. There is nothing particularly special about this room other than the coincidence that its previous occupant was Freeman Dyson. Trinity has always hosted a galaxy of stars, and that year was no exception. Shaw’s contemporaries included Michael Atiyah, the distinguished mathematician; John Polkinghorne, future professor at Cambridge [as well as an Anglican priest] and winner of the Templeton Prize for his work on science and religion; and Roger Phillips, who was later head of theory at Brittain’s Rutherford Laboratory, and my boss for the first twenty years of my own research career… (p. 78)

Frank Close himself is a physicist at Oxford and a prize-winning expositor of his discipline: in 1996 he won the Kelvin Medal and Prize “for outstanding contributions to the public understanding of physics.” And, to be sure, his expertise is in evidence throughout the book under review.

About the book, then: it features an abundance of fascinating biographical data, peppered with the right amount of insider’s gossip (in the least pejorative sense: scientists, when not doing science, talk about science and scientists — usually harmlessly), and the preceding snippet about Shaw is a case a point. Then there’s the science, of course, and, here, too, we are the happy beneficiaries of Close’s insider status.

As the book’s title suggests, the focus falls on renormalization in quantum electrodynamics (and we read on p. 79 that in 1954 Shaw fatefully comes across “a paper by [Julian] Schwinger that someone had ‘left lying around’”), the ensuing genesis of quantum field theory, renormalization revisited, and the currently ongoing hunt for the postulated Higgs boson of the avant garde particle physicists as being the critical piece in the jigsaw puzzle that is the taxonomy of elementary particles. (What does elementary mean, really?) Frank Close does a superb job of telling this late twentieth century and early twenty first century tale in such a manner that the all-too-frequently invoked “intelligent layman” should not only have no problem getting into the physics, as it were, but will be thoroughly entertained by a sporty account of the personalities and actions of the players involved in this grand game.

So, yes, we meet not just Gell-Mann and Zweig but also Abdus Salam, Martinus (a.k.a. Tini) Veltman and Gerardus ‘t Hooft. Happily, Feynman, with his unmistakable personal touch, makes his appearances too, both in person and in the form of his ever-so-cool diagrams. It is worth noting that ‘t Hooft won his 1999 Nobel Prize, shared with Veltman, for “removing” the specific infinities surrounding the theory of the weak force, one of the four forces known and central to both Theories Of Everything (TOEs) and Grand Unified Theories (GUTs). In 1971, ‘t Hooft followed suit with Feynman, Schwinger, Dyson, and Tomonaga (who are featured in the book’s earlier part, dealing with the1950s revolutions spawned at the famous Shelter Island Conference), and set the stage for what is now sometimes touted as the culmination of physics: the hoped-for experimental discovery of the mass-endowing Higgs particle mentioned above.

Thus, for a huge audience, The Infinity Puzzle presents in light and fetching prose a (and you should pardon the pun) close-up of a wonderful set of episodes in contemporary science centered around one of the single most beautiful edifices of modern theoretical physics, quantum field theory, and leading up to the hottest example of big science to be found on the globe today.

Michael Berg is Professor of Mathematics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, CA.

Date Received: 
Friday, August 12, 2011
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Frank Close
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Saturday, November 26, 2011