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The Infinity Puzzle: Quantum Field Theory and the Hunt for an Orderly Universe

4.3 out of 5 stars 39 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0465021444
ISBN-10: 0465021441
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Editorial Reviews


Kirkus Reviews
“Close chronicles the search for the elusive Higgs Boson particle (the ‘God Particle’)…. Throughout, the author chronicles the winners and losers in the annual Nobel sweepstakes, giving them recognition for their achievements and providing a lively thread for readers.”

Peter Higgs, Emeritus Professor of Physics, The University of Edinburgh
“It is a pleasure to read a book on recent advances in our understanding of the structure of matter by an author who not only understands the subject but also takes care to investigate conflicting accounts of how these advances came about.”
Steve Nadis, coauthor of The Shape of Inner Space
“As someone who can deftly explain abstruse quantum field theory to a lay reader, Frank Close is a rarity among physicists. Rarer still, he knows how to weave a compelling tale—that of the ‘infinity problem,’ which has bedeviled the field of quantum electrodynamics and subsequent attempts to unify the forces of nature. The result is a great scientific whodunit, replete with a large, engaging cast of characters, behind-the-scenes maneuvering, and unexpected twists and turns. Here is proof that Close belongs among the very first rank of scientist-authors. I strongly recommend The Infinity Puzzle.”
Dan Hooper, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and University of Chicago; author of Dark Cosmos and Nature’s Blueprint
“The development of quantum field theory is among the very greatest achievements of humankind, on par with those of Einstein, Newton and Darwin. Frank Close introduces these difficult ideas with a rare clarity and simplicity.  Anyone who wants to understand why we built the LHC and what we hope to learn from it should read this book.”
“[Close’s] presentation lucidly acquaints readers with physicists’ quest for the Higgs boson (theorized to cause mass) that Europe’s Large Hadron Collider was built to find.” 
“[A] fascinating book…. [A] compelling history and sociology of modern particle theory. We discover the motivations and achievements of a rich cast of brilliant individuals, and get enough of the science to grasp what they were trying to do. Where Close really shines is in exposing the fraught process of recognition in science…. Close’s history of the field is engaging and gives insight into how great theories are created.”
New Scientist
“[A] thoroughly researched and well-crafted narrative…. [Close] focuses on the triumphs and failures of the physicists behind the equations, providing a realistic view of how theoretical physics really progresses – the all-too-human endeavour fraught with personal ambitions, rivalries, alliances, errors and plain historical accident…. It’s refreshing to read a popular physics book that doesn’t revisit the same well-trodden ground of so many before it.”
BBC Focus
“[A] masterpiece…. Close has done his homework thoroughly, interviewing just about all the protagonists that are still alive and going back to original source material for his facts, which often contradict the memories of even the most reliable of those survivors…. This book is essential reading—I never normally give five stars, but for this I’ll make an exception.”

The American Scholar
“The book brims with charming anecdotes about particle physics between the 1950s and 1980s, when breakthroughs came almost too fast to be comprehended and every scientist seemed to be maneuvering (and occasionally begging) for Nobel prizes. But the book also plumbs the origins of modern physics, especially troubles with the concept of infinity.”

Peter Woit, Not Even Wrong
“[A] fascinating new book…. Knowing the history of a subject has always seemed to me an integral part of really understanding it, so I’d argue that anyone who wants to really understand modern particle physics should spend some time with a book like this…. [I]f like me, you’re fascinated by this history and want to learn something new about it, go out and get a copy soon.”

Publishers Weekly
“Close voyages through the major scientific discoveries in high energy physics that began in 1928, when Paul Dirac married quantum mechanics with Special Relativity, laying the basis for the major technical advances from which we benefit in today’s digital world. Along the way we meet some major figures in the field whose breakthroughs have illuminated the deepest mysteries of physics and cosmology, resulting in an engrossing history that’s also accessible for a general audience.”

Alan Boyle, MSNBC.com’s Cosmic Log
“In his new book…, Oxford physicist Frank Close reviews decades’ worth of brain-teasing theories and looks ahead to puzzles yet to be solved…. Close’s tale illustrates that the course of true science doesn’t always run smooth. It may well turn out that the long-sought Higgs boson is a will-o’-the-wisp, and physicists will have to go back to square one. But even that won’t render The Infinity Puzzle out of date.”
American Scientist
“[An] intriguing tale…. a treasure trove.”
Chad Orzel, Uncertain Principles
“[A]bsolutely fascinating…. a highly readable and detailed history of what is arguably the best-tested theory in the history of science. …If you’re interested in what we know to be true about the universe and how it works, and how we put that knowledge together, I highly recommend this book.”
MAA Reviews
“Superb …. 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.”
Discovery News
“Close’s book veers from the usual popular science treatment of the topic to focus on quantum field theory, described as ‘our best understanding of physics’—and yet very few folks outside of physics have a clear grasp of what it is, and why it’s so significant. A great read for those who’ve been following the Higgs story closely and are intrigued by some of the deeper questions.”
Manjit Kumar, author of Quantum
“The nature of the problem, how it was solved, and the inevitable jostling for Nobel Prizes are major themes of Close’s gripping and extensively researched narrative history of particle physics over the last sixty years…. Close has succeeded in humanising a dramatic era of physics in what is my science book of the year…. ‘Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,’ William Blake wrote in the Auguries of Innocence. Frank Close does a fabulous job of reconstructing how physicists like Feynman and ’t Hooft managed to do exactly that.”

Ars Technica  
The Infinity Puzzle is eminently readable. It has no equations—only a few Feynman diagrams—and a glossary in the back so you don’t get your bosons confused with your hadrons…. All of the luminaries of twentieth century particle physics are here, along with many unsung heroes whose contributions Dr. Close explains and puts into context so they can be better appreciated by a public hitherto ignorant of their work…. [T]he entire book is a very manageable introduction to quantum physics for those who are interested in, but possibly intimidated by, understanding the inner workings of the fabric of our Universe.”

Science News 
“Building the standard model, the flagship theory of modern particle physics, was no mean task. It took decades of painstaking work to bring the forces and elementary particles that make up the universe together in a single framework (which still doesn’t include gravity). Close, a theoretical physicist, chronicles this history from an insider’s perspective…. the story doesn’t unfold as a simple, clearly developing line of thought. Instead, the reader witnesses scientific progress in all its real-world messiness. It’s a comedy of errors at times, full of dead ends, missed opportunities and ideas that lie dormant for years, unproven or unnoticed.”
The Economist
“Mr Close, an accomplished particle physicist in his own right, enjoyed unprecedented access to all the principal players, many of whom he either knows well or, like Mr Higgs, has spoken to at length. He also appears to have left no relevant academic paper, no conference proceedings, memoir or other publicly available source unturned. This painstaking attention to historical detail yields many gems…. Mr Close’s magisterial work is sure to become the definitive account of the story. It offers no unambiguous advice to the Nobel committee. But the judges would be wise to give it a thorough read anyway.”
“A detailed and compelling account of advances in particles physics over the last 60 years. Close’s distinguished career as a professional physicist has enabled him to meet many of the protagonists who made these advances, giving his account the personal perspective of an insider…. Through careful use of analogies and precise prose, Close explains how the infinity puzzle was confronted and overcome repeatedly in the last few decades.… A wonderfully written book that is valuable for all readers. Highly recommended.”

Physics World

“Close deserves praise simply for picking quantum field theory as the topic of a popular book. This is as hard a topic as they come, and he doesn’t cut too many corners when it comes to conceptual depth. Just as important, though, is the fact that he does not hide the complexities of the historical development of the theory. Scientists rarely, if ever, come out with fully formed ideas, and Close demonstrates how science proceeds through false starts, strokes of luck, missed opportunities and, as he puts it, ‘comedies of errors’. Close is especially diligent in investigating the priority of ideas and in crediting researchers who may have been left behind, either by the Nobel committee or by popular imagination. He interviewed virtually all surviving protagonists and, when possible, went back to their private letters and lecture notes. The result is a much more nuanced picture of history…. Serious physics-history buffs…will find The Infinity Puzzle invaluable.”

About the Author

Frank Close is a Professor of Theoretical Physics at Oxford University and Fellow and Tutor in Physics at Exeter College, Oxford. He is the winner of the Kelvin Medal for the public understanding of physics and the author of ten books. He lives in Abingdon, England.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (November 29, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465021441
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465021444
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.4 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #975,977 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Ash Jogalekar TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on November 19, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The theory of quantum electrodynamics (QED) which describes the interaction of light and matter is the most accurate theory in all of science, providing almost unbelievably accurate agreement with experiment. Yet in the middle of the twentieth century the theory was in a deep crisis. Calculations of even the simplest of events in the subatomic world, like the absorption and emission of a photon by an electron, seemed to give nonsensical infinite results that flew in the face of finite values from experiment. These infinities dotted the landscape of physics like ugly tumors, leading some to believe that physics was fundamentally on the wrong track. But hope was at hand. It took a whole post-war breed of brilliant young scientists to invent an ingenious set of tricks collectively called "renormalization" to get rid of these infinities and restore the theory to a complete form. Renormalization not only axed the infinities in QED but became the test that any fundamental theory of physics had to pass before being deemed acceptable. In a stunning set of successes, it was applied to the unification of the weak and electromagnetic forces and then to the strong force holding protons and neutrons together. In this book Frank Close tells us how all this happened.

Close's book is not only a clear description of renormalization but is also probably the most detailed popular history of post-war particle physics that I have read. Close starts with QED and how its brilliant expositors like Julian Schwinger and Richard Feynman developed renormalization techniques to exorcise its infinities.
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If you are interested in the minute details of who-did-what-first in the evolution of the Standard Model, and you really care about who got Nobel prizes and who did not but really deserved to, then this is the book for you. I don't care about either very much, so a good part of this book was a waste of my time.

The descriptions of basic physics models is always very challenging, and Close tries to do a good job of it. He does manage to get across a lot about how fundamental particles behave, but the various theories he discusses are just names, with no substantive content. I know that in mathematics, there are many areas that simply cannot be explained to the non-mathematical layperson, and that may be true of modern physics as well. However, in other fields that I know (population biology and economics, for instance) the important stuff can be fully explained with only the most minimal use of mathematical formalism. I am searching for a popular account of the Standard Model with this attractive feature.
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This review is being written on 14 December 2011 just after
CERN announced to a packed press conference in Geneva that
it had found evidence of the existence of the Higgs boson.
While this is not as sensational as the first landing on the
Moon, it is a partial verification of the relevance to the
real world of various developments made in theoretical
physics since 1950.

So what is needed is an authoritative book explaining what
is CERN, who is Higgs and what is a boson? Frank Close
has written such a book in advance of the press conference.
He is a senior physicist and an experienced writer about
science. He interviewed participants, read papers and
other documents and used his own expertise to give a
useful account of the sequence of events.

Inevitably the technical aspects of renormalization and
bosons are glossed over to some extent. `If all this
could be summarized in a few sentences it would not be
worth a Nobel prize.' Close has quite a lot to say about
several Nobel prize awards as well as explaining how
high level progress in science is achieved.

The difficulty facing this or any other reviewer is
specifying the professional background needed to read
the book. At the very least, experience in any of the
physical sciences and/or the history of technology helps.
However anyone with an interest in physics will
benefit from reading some or all `Infinity Puzzle'.
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Regardless of what one might like to conclude from the enthusiastic reviews quoted on the dust cover, the layman will learn nothing useful about quantum field theory from this book since that is quite impossible. What one will find is a complete and engagingly told tale of some of the most important and exciting events in the history of physics, leading to what has become the most successful theory of modern times.

The saga has all the qualities of a finely crafted suspense novel. Quantum field theory, at first thought to be an elegant and powerful generalisation of quantum mechanics, was soon found to be afflicted with such serious computational inconsistencies that, for a time, it quite fell out of favour. Only the work of the world's finest intellects brought its glorious resurrection.

Prof. Close has exhaustively researched the topic, apparently consulting virtually every important paper, conference proceeding and even personal diaries, supported by interviews with every living scientist who took part in the drama. Although I am intimately familiar with the physics, I learned a great deal about its fascinating history and the personal interactions of the participants.

What emerges is a very different view of grand science than that which is likely to be held by the novice. Instead of the logical, ordered and seamless progression from one great idea to the next, we find that advancements also involve missteps, misunderstandings and missed opportunities, often tainted with personal prejudice and haunted by the spectre of competition. In his carefully constructed account, Prof. Close communicates both the enormous thrill and crushing disappointments that typify advanced research.
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