There’s a new book about 12 experiments that changed the world, and it ignores the role of beautiful theory in physics

matter of everything It tells the history of physics through experiments. Any book on the history of science for a general audience would necessarily be a distortion. The question is whether distortion is useful: does it offer a new perspective on the history of physics? While there is a lot to like about the book, I found it quite controversial and unhelpful.


Review: A Matter of Everything: 12 Experiences That Changed the World – Susie Sheehy (Bloomsbury)


Here’s what I liked about the book: It’s very detailed. It takes us through 12 important experiments in physics from roughly the last century and a half.

Experiments range from the study of X-rays and the nature of light in the early twentieth century, to the early development of particle accelerators to the discovery and study of subatomic particles throughout the twentieth century, culminating in the modern era of large science and use. From the Large Hadron Collider to find Higgs boson. They are described in a strict and accessible manner.

A technician works in the tunnel of the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) of the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN, in 2016.
Laurent Gilleron/AFP


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Rigor and accessibility are clearly a trade-off, at least for a non-technical audience. The book manages this trade off beautifully. Complex experiences are described in a way that is easy to understand.

The role that these experiments play in pushing the frontiers of particle physics — the study of an increasingly large set of tiny bits of reality, including those that make up matter like electrons, along with the forces that bind them — is also well explained.

This is done without having to take the reader through the details of some hypothesis theories, most notably: the various quantum field theories within the Standard Model of particle physics.

Author Susie Sheehy, an Australian physicist in academic roles at the Universities of Oxford and Melbourne, does an amazing job of explaining the broader implications of the experiments considered. Shehe is an expert in accelerometer physics: the design and implementation of particle accelerators for experiments.

Careful attention is paid to incidental techniques developed in the context of building particle accelerators, including the development of magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs) as well as the production of radioisotopes for use in medical imaging in general.

The main point is that the development of these technologies was not an objective of scientific research but an unpredictable by-product. A word of caution underlies much of the discussion of these technologies: the industry must be in the service of science, not the other way around.

I also liked how fun the book is for the inventor’s creativity. For each of the 12 experiments described a common story unfolds: There is something we want to test but don’t know how to do.

Scientists must devise new ways to manage electricity, magnetism, and other fair ways so that they can conduct their experiments. Experimental particle physicists are suddenly familiar: Scientists are messing around, making new pieces of equipment the same way one might invent new kitchen utensils on the fly with some duct tape and a healthy dose of optimism.

distorted history

As noted, the subject of everything is an inevitable distortion of the history of physics. One of the major distortions lies in the book’s central premise. The 12 selected experiments are from the world of particle physicists. Whether by design or by chance, the history of twentieth-century physics has been recast as the history of particle physics.

To say this leaves out a lot, is an understatement. The Standard Model of particle physics is rivaled, in strict empirical assertion, only by the general theory of relativity.



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While the Standard Model describes the world of particles and particle interactions, general relativity describes the large-scale structure of the universe and gravity.

In the twentieth century, general relativity was stimulated and eventually confirmed by an impressive range of experiments, beginning with the creators Interference experiments In the early twentieth century to detect gravitational waves in 2015.



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Focusing on experiments related to particle physics not only paints a strange picture of 20th century physics, but also tends to cast the Standard Model in a pink light. Because we now know that the Standard Model is, to some extent, incomplete. The Standard Model “contradicts” general relativity. The two theories need to be replaced.

Perhaps a more balanced account of the history of twentieth-century physics would have involved a wide range of experiments. Of course, one book cannot cover everything. But some notes should be made about what was left out. Otherwise, a idiosyncratic view of the history of twentieth-century physics quickly turned into a polemical retelling of where “real” physics lay.

Experiment and theory

Why experiments? This is a question I kept asking myself throughout the book. Ultimately, the answer appears to be political. The book works hard to convince the reader of the importance of experimental physics. Experiments are the workplace in science. Progress can only be made by collecting empirical data.

This focus on the experimenter as a pioneer, and his way into new scientific terrain, is at best half-truth. The experimenter’s companion is the theorist. Theoretical work and experimental work generally go hand in hand. However, theoretical physics appears to be underestimated throughout the book. This is puzzling, given that theories are necessary for twice the experimental work.

Tracks in the cloud room.
Photo by Gordon Fraser/CERN, http://cerncourier.com/cws/article/cern/28742)And the CC BY

First, theories are usually needed to generate hypotheses for empirical testing. Much empirical work tests the predictions of well-known theories in order to confirm them. There are, of course, cases where an experiment is conducted and produces results that challenge all known theories. But until then, it is the interaction between theory and experiment that drives science forward.

Second, theories are needed to understand the empirical data. Usually a theory of some kind is needed to understand how a particular experiment works.

The Large Hadron Collider – a huge ring of electromagnets used to accelerate particles to high speeds before smashing them together, to see what they are made of – is an example of this. The experiment is so complex that understanding it requires absorbing a range of theories from different scientific fields. Empirical data in a vacuum are almost meaningless. Theories provide context for the empirical data.



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Suppressing theoretical work in physics is part of the book’s trick. But, again, the picture this conveys of twentieth-century physics is unrealistic. The story of twentieth-century physics is as beautiful a story of theory as it is of an ingenious experiment. Again, it’s hard not to see the focus on experiment as something of a normative statement about how science works.

lost voices

People play a big role in the matter of everything. Glorious experimental machines are set against the backdrop of scientists and inventors who toil and toil. This focus on people is welcome. It helps to humanize the story of twentieth century physics, and give the reader a sense that they, too, can contribute to science, if only they’ve been hanging around the shed long enough.

However, the book may have said more about scientists who are widely acknowledged to have been unjustly neglected in the history of their field. As the book itself acknowledges, there is, for example, a need to tell the story of the women scientists.

Given this, I found the omission of Marie Curie and her daughter Irene surprising. Mary and Erin pass by and out of the book in different places, but their story is never properly told.

Marie and Irene Curie.
Wikimedia Commons


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This is especially strange given that both were involved in experimental work in particle physics, and one of them was a Nobel Prize winner. In the end, the book doesn’t quite heed its own warning, and what we’re left with is a history of physics with notable loopholes. That’s a shame, because it was an opportunity to set things right.

determinants

In general, “a matter of everything” suffers from some serious limitations. It claims to be a history of twentieth-century physics, but at best it tells the story of experimental particle physics.

Theoretical work is missing, as are some experiments relating to the work of gravity in physics. The book also contains significant gaps when it comes to the scientists themselves.

So I wouldn’t recommend the book as a complete history of twentieth century physics. But read it if you’re interested in particle accelerators, and if you’re keen to find out why they’re important to everyday life, and not just to the big sciences.