Everything around us is made of ‘stuff’, from planets, to books, to our own bodies. Whatever it is, we call it matter or material substance. It is solid; it has mass. But what is matter, exactly? We are taught in school that matter is not continuous, but discrete. As a few of the philosophers of ancient Greece once speculated, nearly two and a half thousand years ago, matter comes in ‘lumps’, and science has relentlessly peeled away successive layers of matter to reveal its ultimate constituents.
Surely, we can’t keep doing this indefinitely. We imagine that we should eventually run up against some kind of ultimately fundamental, indivisible type of stuff, the building blocks from which everything in the Universe is made. The English physicist Paul Dirac called this ‘the dream of philosophers’. But science has discovered that the foundations of our Universe are not as solid or as certain and dependable as we might have once imagined. They are instead built from ghosts and phantoms, of a peculiar quantum kind. And, at some point on this exciting journey of scientific discovery, we lost our grip on the reassuringly familiar concept of mass.
How did this happen? How did the answers to our questions become so complicated and so difficult to comprehend? In Mass Jim Baggott explains how we come to find ourselves here, confronted by a very different understanding of the nature of matter, the origin of mass, and its implications for our understanding of the material world. Ranging from the Greek philosophers Leucippus and Democritus, and their theories of atoms and void, to the development of quantum field theory and the discovery of a Higgs boson-like particle, he explores our changing understanding of the nature of matter, and the fundamental related concept of mass.
I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing some wonderful non-fiction books lately so it was pure happiness to add one of the science genre to that list especially one that flowed so eloquently as this. An added layer of surprise and joy was the field of philosophy woven through his scientific focus showing how the beauty in both act as complements rather than enemies.
During my educational years I loved science but too often the textbooks took the wonderment and breathtaking beauty out of the world so trying to follow along in class or do work at home was a level of tedium that should be easily found along Dante’s circles of Hell.
Baggott is now one of my heroes for creating something that sucks you in to the point that you will find yourself curling up late into the night to soak in the beautifully written journey through history as his words and phrases lend themselves well to the novice just as easily to one well versed in this field.
We start with a history lesson in a science book so we can understand matter, learn some mythos of the minds who have studied it, how their work was viewed at the time, and even get a bit of a philosophical view thanks to Kant. Despite the fact there was a time philosophers and scientists seemed to be on opposite sides of the same field, Baggot shows how philosophy and science actually complement one another using both principles to explain a wide reaching subject.
Next up is relativity and how it affects mass, we get some quantum theory for those who are not faint of heart, and Baggot’s view that mass is (and I’m probably badly paraphrasing here) an interaction of energy’s effects mixed with quantum fields. Baggot’s love for quantum really seems to shine through this book as that is the area which feels like it gets the most attention and detail whereas relativity comes off like it’s the subject he feels forced to get through like a kid choking down the vegetables so he can have the chocolate cake.
We get equations that are explained so you know what ‘F’ and ‘m’ means in F=ma for those that didn’t know or couldn’t remember. Figures to provide a visual explanation which are great for people like me who need to ‘see’ to get it. We get wrap ups of “Five things we learned” at the end of chapters to help summarize and re-instill the previous lessons. It’s important to start at the beginning and read through because he builds upon what he’s trying to impart so you may become lost if you didn’t know what he taught or believed in previous chapters.
My one criticism of the book is that it feels like he begins to run out of steam a bit towards the conclusion as the explanations start to become a little thin and we aren’t given the same level of details to understand how he made the connection from Point A to Point B. I felt like I could hear my math teacher reminding me to ‘show my work’; rather you have to take a leap of faith that his conclusions are solid.
By the end you should have gained a greater appreciation for the evolution of scientific thought on what constitutes the foundation of our universe.
Thank you to Netgalley and Oxford University Press for allowing me to review this book.
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*synopsis and pic from netgalley.com