on October 2, 2004
One of the problems I face in teaching at a small liberal arts college is providing for our english, theatre, and music majors, a substantive introduction to modern physics. We have to get beyond the basics of heat, light and sound, and we have to talk about quarks, and black holes, relativity, the quantum theory, and the whole wonderful universe. Finally, a book has arrived that does all of this, and wonderfully unifies all of physics under its main mast of symmetry. These things captivate our students. Yet it also helps to have heros (especially some female scientist and mathematicians), and to still be a lyrical and readable account of things, but not to trivialize the subject. Finally, Professor Leon Lederman and Dr. Christopher Hill have risen to the cause. This is the first, and probably the unique, and perhaps the ultimate, attempt to reach out and fill this gap. I can't tell you how happy I am to see this book arrive. I have been using materials from their website, for years, but finally it all comes together in a book that I can assign to my students. This book is great... I repeat, it is great. It isn't easy, but it acheives so much (there are dozens of useless books popularizing science out there). The biography and theme, the life of Emmy Noether, is a perfect lead in to this immense and majestic subject. It is poignant and beautifully written. The appendix, with its humoresque student solving an SAT test problem using symmetry, is probably worth the purchase price of tuition alone. This book will hook my students, and will sit prominently on their bookshelves, in their homes, when they become lawyers, doctors, statesmen, and composers, a ready reference to all that is the mystery of nature, for the rest of their lives.
on December 9, 2004
We are often delighted by the sight of symmetry when we observe it in a beautiful flower, in hexagonal snowflakes, or in man-made structures such as arches or bridges. But how many of us realize that symmetries are closely related to the conservation laws of physics? Lederman and Hill, 2 well-known and practicing physicists, describe the multiple facets of this topic, discussing how symmetry in the flow of time is related to energy conservation. They use this concept as a springboard to expand upon the importance of energy in this period of our civilization with real facts and figures.
The first few chapters deal with symmetries of space and time and their relation to the conservation of momentum and energy. Fascinating stories like that about perpetual motion machines abound, and there are personal vignettes like one about Amalia Noether, a young lady who discovered the deeper connection between symmetries and physical laws and still suffered trials and tribulations as a woman seeking an academic position.
Hill and Lederman take on the task of describing symmetries throughout physics, from classical mechanics to quantum mechanics, all the way to modern topics of particle physics. The book is intended for readers at an advanced high-school level or non-physics majors at university. Chapter 6, for instance, gives a refreshing account of the law of inertia- how it was formulated (incorrectly) by the ancient Greeks, later to be discovered by Galileo and to become a basic postulate in the relativity theory.
Relativity is expounded upon in Ch. 7, whereby full appreciation of its contents requires some guidance. Other chapters describe
e.g., symmetries of quarks and leptons, which currently stimulate public imagination. This is, in fact, the intent of the authors, "...to [motivate and] convince high school science teachers to include some of the important concepts of symmetry in the core disciplines of phyics, chemistry and biology" and to use it as a text/reference book. Their purpose is well-served, especially by the many anecdotes and numerical estimates that make the book easily approachable for the reader.
on June 8, 2006
Wow. This is some book. Unlike many books that describe the evolution of modern cosmological theory, this one is dedicated to the understanding of physics itself, both its history and it's collation of knowledge about reality.
Through the course of the text, the history of discoveries in physics is described, giving all contributors from Aristarchis, Galileo and Newton, to Einstein, Feynman and Guth, among others, their just due. That it has been a globe effort is evident from the source nationalities of these intellects, as diverse as Scotland and Japan. The narration clearly illustrates that good science is the result of the cumulative efforts of many different individuals, from many different cultures throughout history.
Interesting too is that the book's basic starting point is the intellectual contribution of a brilliant female mathemation, Amalia Noether, working at about the same time and in the same country as the better known Einstein. It is her theory of symmetry in physics, worked out in mathematical theorems, that created a major connecting link between physics and mathematics. Although the book is not in depth enough to actually make her contribution clearer than "Noether's Theorum," her discoveries are obviously at the core of the entire movement in modern physics. It's nice to know that my old high school math teacher, who so disparaged the math abilities of his female students was wrong, wrong, wrong.
The book is well conceived in its presentation of the information. It begins with the earliest efforts of the ancient Greeks and Romans to understand the workings of nature. Their concepts, sometimes startlingly close to the truth, served as the starting point for later researchers. The character of physics as a discipline is presented from a Newtonian perspective in the earlier portions of the book, and I have to say, while it does not bog one down in detailed formulae, it makes much more sense of basic physics than many books do.
The next few chapters deal with Einstein and Bohr, relativity and quantum mechanics. Probably no other book I've read on these subjects has done as good a job of pulling the whole thing together; particularly the authors manage to connect the concepts of Newtonian and modern physics more clearly for the reader. While many books have attempted to do this, often it seems as though the authors make the assumption that the reader will see how the two are connected and hop from one topic to the next without connecting comments. Lederman and Hill put the entire thing out there for the student, assuming that it is not obvious how the two are connected. This description is in fact the bulk of the book.
The last pages of the book are dedicated to a detailed description of the more recent contributions to physics, particularly the theories relating to sub-atomic particles and their interactions and the concepts behind the Feynman diagrams. I have to admit that this aspect of physics has always been the most confusing to me. The authors went a good distance to clearing up some of the questions I had about the topic. This is, however, the most complex discussion in the book, and one that I will doubtless have to re-read before I am entirely comfortable with it.
A superb book on modern physics, one that I'll re-read. I suggest that it be used as an introductory text to high school physics classes, since it makes the details of Newtonian physics usually taught at this level clearer and introduces advanced physics in a more understandable form.
on January 10, 2006
If you've heard about symmetry and the beauty of physics and wondered what it was all about, this may well be the book for you. In ordinary English, the word "symmetry" refers to something fairly simple. For example, suppose you have a picture of a 6-pointed star and draw a line from one angle to the opposite angle; if you flip the picture about that line, it will still look the same. This book has a more inclusive definitiion of symmetry. Imagine you have a graph of a circle with its center at the origin. Imagine overlaying it with a blank graph on clear plastic, with the origin at a different place and the axes tilted. The graph is still a circle and that, to Lederman and Hill, is a symmetry. Suppose that instead of a circle, the graph is of a formula which represents some physical phenomenon, with one axis representing time and the other standing for space; if the formula is still valid in the overlay, that, too, is a symmetry. Lederman and Hill do a very good of explaining all this, in much more detail, with illustrations from Emma Noether's great equivalence theorems.
When they get to Chapter 8, they do a very good job of explaining mirror reflections and handedness in everyday life, but they give no hint of what this has to do with the idea of parity in particle physics, the subject of the chapter. And that's pretty much how it goes for the rest of the book, i.e. for most of 20th-century physics.
I'm not complaining about that; understanding the physics requires knowledge of a few fields of rather advanced mathematics. For what they do - giving an impression of physics to non-scientists - they do better than any of the many other books and articles I have read. For example, they show how Galileo's principle or relativity connects with Einstein and why the wave equation of electrons means that their interactions must be quantized. And I recommend the appendix on group theory; it is an excellent introduction to how mathematics can be abstracted to apply to new situations. (For an idea of my math background, click on my name, above.)
on August 9, 2009
The link between symmetry and conservation laws would be a great topic for popularization, and I would love to see a book that would do for symmetry what, e.g., Feynman's QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter does for field theory. Unfortunately, this book just doesn't accomplish what it set out to do. The big problem is that it lacks tight logical connections. There is no clear unifying thread of reasoning that would allow the lay reader to make sense of it all. I'm a physicist, so I can see what he's getting at, but I don't think I would have been able to make much sense out of the book if I hadn't already been familiar with the subject.
on January 6, 2005
This book bridges the gap between esoteric scientific concepts and the truly comprehensible. As someone fascinated by science without a strong background in it, I can truly appreciate the incredible feat of this book. Lederman takes what should be complex and makes it lucid and readable. He takes on the aesthetic of symmetry and translates it to the layman audience. This book is truly worthwhile and informative, for all readers.
on March 14, 2012
This book did what I wanted. After reading Green/Kaku/Gribben et al, I felt very fuzzy about what physicists mean by symmetry. Pictures of basketballs, snowflakes, and butterflies weren't helping. This book really helped give a gut feeling for what symmetry is when a physicist tosses it around with reference only to the darn snowflake. The book is witty with lots of intuitive examples, though parts were a slog. (I need an Idiot's Guide to gauge invariance, still.) I did find that if I let my mind kind of float over the murkier parts, I was most of the time "almosting" it. But the clear parts did outnumber the murkies.
I debated whether to let my thoughts on the Kindle version affect the number of stars, but decided to rate on the contents and just WARN of the Kindle problems. There are more inane typos in the text than you'd find in a world of Tweets. And they are concentrated in the formulas. Yes, the book has formulas, though little math connected with them--just short-hand ways of describing what the author explains in words and examples. But even I, far from a math wizard, could tell that the formulas, particularly sub and superscripts, were nonsensical. It's hard to describe in a review where there is no way to indicate a sub or superscript, but for example, when using a negative power, instead of a minus sign there were two commas. Over and over. Parts of formulas were just left out: it's as if a physics text said F=m and forgot the "a" part when describing motion. The book slowed down because whenever I encountered the typos, I found myself writing this review in my head and losing the train of thought of the book.
Whoever was in charge of putting this into Kindle format must have left on a long vacation as soon as the scanner stopped whirring and never looked at the text again. The publisher should be ashamed, mortified, to put this into the stream of commerce, and the author should sue the publisher for misrepresentation!! But I guess publisher mortification is limited to the Horrid Things that will happen if it lets Amazon set prices for e-books.
Get the dead tree version and welcome to the world physicists talk about when they rave about the beauties of symmetry.
on December 31, 2005
This book is the only one I've found to give a "user-friendly" entry to the big topic of symmetry in physics. The authors give Emmy Noether much deserved credit for her astounding theorem relating symmetries to conservation laws. A weakness of the book is that the authors occasionally depart into territory other than physics and use their pulpit to pontificate on subjects in which they are not authorities, e.g. a little sermonizing here and there on overpopulation and Darwinian theory. Skip that baloney and stick to the physics and you'll have a fun and challenging intro to symmetry in physics, a much-ignored topic even by physicists.
on May 10, 2005
I thank Lederman and Hill for making me aware of how naïve was my simple notion of symmetry. Very likely, few scientists outside of physics had more than an inkling of what symmetry means before having read this book. The word" symmetry" connotes something to most of us, but few of us recognize symmetry to be the linchpin for what is (or might not be). "Exhilarating" best describes my new appreciation, as I re-read parts of Symmetry, my notes, the authors' notes, and my notes on their notes...and to feel the satisfaction that derives from dissolving each little bit of ignorance in physics.
on March 29, 2016
What a wonderful book!
Anyone interested in mathematics, modern physics or even abstract art would really love to read this one.
The topic of symmetry is important to our lives as human beings and lovers of fine art, as well as a critical method used by modern physicists exploring quantum field theoretical explanations of reality.
Lederman begins with a very deliberate and careful exploration of what symmetry is, before proceding to
many examples of its relevance to science and to physics.
Simply put, this is a tour de force on modern physics and no one should miss it, if she or he would like to comprehend
modern quantum field theory.
Even apart from its explanations of physics, the book succeeds well as an entertaining romp through
all aspects of symmetry.
Don't miss it!