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The Lightness of Being: Mass, Ether, and the Unification of Forces Hardcover – August 26, 2008


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 292 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (August 26, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465003214
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465003211
  • Product Dimensions: 1.1 x 6.1 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (63 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #925,200 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Grand unification theories have long been a holy grail in science. Nobel Prize–winning physicist Wilczek, who has himself made notable contributions in this field, offers a survey of everything in the universe from quarks to black holes, elucidating the current scientific thinking on how matter and energy interact. The two main concepts are the Grid and the Core. Wilczek says the grid is a conceptual descendant of ether, that mysterious substance scientists once believed filled empty space. Now some physicists theorize that space is highly structured by the grid, which is the primary ingredient of physical reality and the substance from which all physical matter is formed. Core theory, on the other hand, provides a theory of everything, reconciling gravity with electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces. Wilczek reports a couple of problems with core theory: it's not very elegant (scientists love elegance in their equations), and it hasn't been reconciled with string theory. This book is not for most general readers, but will be a hit with hard-core science buffs. Photos, illus. (Sept.)
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From Booklist

In this excursion to the outer limits of particle physics, Wilczek explores what quarks and gluons, which compose protons and neutrons, reveal about the manifestation of mass and gravity. A corecipient of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics, Wilczek knows what he’s writing about; the question is, will general science readers? Happily, they know what the strong interaction is (the forces that bind the nucleus), and in Wilczek, they have a jovial guide who adheres to trade publishing’s belief that a successful physics title will not include too many equations. Despite this injunction (against which he lightly protests), Wilczek delivers an approachable verbal picture of what quarks and gluons are doing inside a proton that gives rise to mass and, hence, gravity. Casting the light-speed lives of quarks against “the Grid,” Wilczek’s term for the vacuum that theoretically seethes with quantum activity, Wilczek exudes a contagious excitement for discovery. A near-obligatory acquisition for circulating physics collections. --Gilbert Taylor

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Customer Reviews

I highly recommend this book to people who want to keep abreast of the latest thinking on this area of physics.
Brad VanAuken
In this book we get an awe-inspiring jaunt through the most modern views of the quantum vacuum (which W. calls "The Grid") and unification theories (including SUSY).
Nigel Seel
Frank Wilczek handles the challenge beautifully - clearly explaining very obscure topics with a very easy-to-read, informal style and an occasional dash of humor.
Gordon Large

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

103 of 105 people found the following review helpful By Paul McCord on August 23, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Anyone with more than just a passive interest in physics and the nature of the universe will enjoy this book. The title caught my attention, and the first chapter drew me in. Before I realized an afternoon had passed, I had finished the book in a single sitting and found myself eagerly flipping back to previous chapters!

Frank Wilczek may be a Nobel Prize winner (2004), but you don't have to be a physicist to read his book. He writes clearly (and occasionally humorously), with only minimal use of numbers and equations, allowing the text to have a smooth flow so the reader can absorb the complexity of it all. (He even provides a glossary for clearer understanding of the topics discussed.)

Almost from the first page, this is fascinating read, offering insights that literally contradict past theories that were once thought to be irrefutable. For example, perfectly "empty" space is unstable and can actually spawn tiny particles, so we really can get something from nothing!

And then there's what Wilczek calls the Grid, a sort of upgrade over the old ether idea, although it's really something entirely different. The Grid offers an explanation for, among many other things, the spontaneous activity in what appears to be empty space.

The Lightness of Being is about more than just particle physics. It's about connecting theories old and new, from particle physics to cosmology, to bring us many steps closer not only to understanding how the forces of nature work together to form a life-sustaining universe, but also to understanding what "nature" really is.
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33 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Jaume Puigbo Vila on October 1, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book continues the themes of "Fantastic Realities" (which was more a collection of articles than a real book), but it is much more intelligible. The title corresponds to the fact that a human being is 95% pure energy. The reason: proton's and neutron's masses are very much larger than the rest masses of their constituent quarks, i.e. most of these baryons' mass is pure (m= E/c*c) energy.
If you are not familiar with Quantum Chromodynamics (QCD), the theory of the strong interaction, you will get a good grasp of it by reading this book and you will understand quark confinement. QCD is an exceptionally rigid theory depending only on three parameters. The author won a Nobel Prize for the development of QCD based on asymptotic freedom together with David Gross, although this work, as graduate student, was not recognized until 20 years later.
By reading the book you will also discover why gravity is so weak compared to other forces (a magnet lifts a clip against Earth gravitational pull) and you will learn about the theoretical framework to extend the Standard Model group of symmetries to Supersymmetry, a theory that suggests a unification of all interactions, including gravity, at high energies. Predicted superpartners of the standard particles may be discovered at the LHC in Geneva. On the way you will also come to accept that empty space is a most complex structure: a multilayered, multicolored superconductor.
The author questions Popper's falsifiability dogma to which all scientific theories must obey. Part 3 is titled: Is Beauty Truth? It reminds me of Sir Michael Atiyah's presentation at Cosmocaixa in Barcelona with a similar argument and the author presents historical evidence (Dirac's prediction of the positron, for example).
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37 of 39 people found the following review helpful By Brad VanAuken on September 19, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I am not a physicist but I have been fascinated by cosmology, general relativity, quantum mechanics, string theory, multi-dimensional theories, black holes, grand unified theory (GUT), etc. since my college days in the mid-to-late seventies. I have read many books on these topics and many are very difficult reads given that I am not grounded in the advanced mathematical models and approaches that underpin the theories. Having said that, this book is a very easy read for the layman (as easy as a book on this topic can be) and is written in a highly entertaining way. Frank Wilczek has a wonderful sense of humor. I find that I don't have to read any sentence twice to understand the concept. I get it the first time around. It takes true brilliance to convey very complicated concepts simply and with great clarity. I sat down and read this book from cover to cover without putting it down. It covers the evolution of thinking on matter and space from the earliest thinking to today's speculation and theories. The concept of space as a dynamic grid is fascinating. Dr. Wilczek even includes a glossary of terms in the back of the book in case you don't understand the meaning of a particular word or phrase. I highly recommend this book to people who want to keep abreast of the latest thinking on this area of physics. It is an informative and engaging read.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Nigel Seel on October 7, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Wilczek got his Nobel Prize for his part in developing Chromodynamics, the theory of quarks and gluons and their strong force interaction. In this book we get an awe-inspiring jaunt through the most modern views of the quantum vacuum (which W. calls "The Grid") and unification theories (including SUSY).

Lots of stuff I hadn't understood before - for example, the mass of protons and neutrons (actually hadrons in general) is not at all a primary attribute. Instead it's Nature's optimisation compromise between the energy in the colour field (decreases as quarks and antiquark, for example, get closer together) and the increasing energy of 'localisation' as the said quarks and antiquarks are constrained into the same place: (more precision in location means higher momentum and energy). This energy (E/c2) is what turns out to be the proton or neutron mass: the quarks and gluons themselves are almost massless.

Wilczek writes in a humorous and crystal clear way, which makes his book that rarity in popularisations - a bit of a page turner! Warning: you need to be comfortable with the conceptual basis of 'undergraduate' quantum mechanics and special relativity to engage with this book.
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