Professor Steven E. Vigdor's book “Signatures of the Artist” is an interesting and unique contribution to the crowded field of popular scientific literature, with an ambitious, although somewhat ill-defined, intent. The author's stated goal is to introduce the reader to many of the experiments that underlie our modern understanding of the universe. It covers important and cutting-edge topics in particle physics, surveys the origin of life and its subsequent evolution, and then even dabbles a bit with quantum mechanics. With such a broad set of subject matter, such a book demands a unifying theme that ties it all together and while Professor Vigdor seems to have attempted to employ more than one theme to do so, I am not sure that he succeeded with any of them.

First, I would like to describe the strengths of the book. Vigdor is a well-educated and informed scientist, with an impressive and encyclopedic grasp of the subject matter. The topics he chose to include are well selected, and he omits no fundamental physics mysteries of consequence. While he is a physicist and consequently his descriptions of particle physics, cosmology, and quantum mechanics are the strongest parts of the book, his descriptions of chemical evolution and recent scholarship in the field of abiogenesis are done well and are a helpful introduction to people who are not expert in those fields. His discussion of biological evolution is more cursory and is included as a necessary part of the question of why the universe seems to be so well tuned to result in humans.

In his preface, Professor Vigdor describes his target audience as being college level physics students or even freshman level honor students, and I think that he has gauged his intended audience pretty well. The book has an extensive list of citations and references, sprinkled liberally throughout the text, making it easy for an inspired reader to easily dig more deeply into any particular topic that catches his or her eye. I think that even particle physics or cosmology graduate students or postdocs (who often focus on a specific research topic) will find the book valuable, as it provides a broad overview of the subject matter. An especially strong feature of the book is that it does not only describe research at such scientific powerhouses as the well-known Large Hadron Collider, which attempt to concentrate as much energy into as small a volume as possible to try to discover new laws of nature. He also describes many precision experiments which have the potential to teach us even more.

Within the subject matter of particle physics and cosmology, he spends a great deal of time on the concept of symmetry, including the symmetries of charge conjugation and parity (CP). He describes the Higgs field and the breaking of its symmetry in the early universe. I found his discussion of symmetry breaking in both the electroweak and strong forces to be particularly dense, requiring consultation of other sources to make sense of his explanations.

This denseness does not appear everywhere throughout the book. His discussion of dark matter and dark energy is interesting and given at a level appropriate for his target audience, as are his chemical, biological, and quantum mechanical descriptions. His writing style is also a little dry and academic, especially in the earlier parts of the book.

My main concern about this book is not the descriptions of individual topics. The challenging passages covering symmetry breaking aside, each topic is described quite well, by and large. My main critique is that the book doesn't seem to be…well…a book. I found myself trying to determine what the author intended as a core narrative arc to tie the entire work together.

There seemed to be a couple of possibilities. For instance, the book's title appears to have been inspired by a particular piece of art by M. C. Escher, called “Plane-filling motif with reptiles.” A yin/yang symbol, first flipped around a vertical axis, then a horizontal axis, and finally with white and black swapped, will look exactly like it did before those operations. Escher's artistic piece is composed of intertwined black and white lizards and has the same property, except that the author signed it in one corner. When the flipping and color changing operations are applied to the artwork, the lizards look as they did before the changes, but the author's signature has moved. Thus, the author's signature has broken the symmetry.

Vigdor extends this metaphor to physics theories. Many physics theories have a fundamental symmetry, allowing an important property or properties to be swapped. The use of the Escher metaphor maps naturally onto CP symmetry, which interchanges directions (e.g., left/right, up/down, and forward/back) and matter and antimatter. CP is nearly a perfect symmetry in nature, but it is broken to a tiny degree. This small broken symmetry might explain a very large mystery of the universe, which is why the cosmos is made exclusively of matter, when matter and antimatter should exist in equal quantities. The title of the book highlights how these small imperfections in much larger symmetries are likely clues as to the solution of a number of different unexplained questions about the universe—essentially signatures of the creator, although he does not imply a literal one. This metaphor arises more than once, but somehow is never employed as powerfully as it might have been.

I also had the impression that Vigdor really wanted to take on those members of society who believe in the principle of intelligent design (ID) as a proof of the existence of an intelligent creator of the universe. Throughout the book, he mentioned many examples of instances where small changes in the laws of the universe would have led to a cosmos in which life would be impossible; indeed, it is for this reason that he included in what might have been a book about particle physics and cosmology the chapter on abiogenesis and evolution. This book could have been one about the debate between ID and modern science, but he never quite stood his ground and drew a line in the intellectual sand.

As I read the closing words of the book, I found myself unsatisfied. I was looking for a conclusion; a literary punctuation mark that told me, the reader, just why I had read this book. I found that piece missing. I remain uncertain just what story Vigdor was trying to tell.

Yet, the book contained many fascinating tidbits of information not seen in most popular science books, heavily cited and referenced, with a very broad and expert eye. Despite the weakness of the book's narrative arc, if the reader knows that weakness in advance and simply wants to understand a lot of very fascinating science, then I recommend this book.

Don Lincoln is a senior scientist at Fermilab interested in the question of quark and lepton generations. Currently, he is using data collected by the Compact Muon Solenoid collaboration and using the Large Hadron Collider to explore that topic. In addition, he is a science popularizer, having written several books for the public on particle physics, cosmology, and xenobiology. He is a frequent contributor to CNN and other media outlets. He is a fellow of both APS and AAAS, and he was awarded the 2017 Gemant award from AIP for his science outreach efforts.