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

Basic Books
New York
, 2011. $28.99 (435 pp.). ISBN 978-0-465-02144-4

Most general-audience books on the history of science tend to present a sort of whiggish view—a streamlined version in which scientific progress is steady. Professional scientists, of course, know that real science proceeds in fits and starts, with numerous side trips, missteps, and missed opportunities along the way. Thus it’s a pleasure to read books that present a more complete story, such as David Lindley’s Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science (Doubleday, 2007); Louisa Gilder’s The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics Was Reborn (Knopf, 2008); and Abraham Pais’s magisterial “Subtle Is the Lord . . .”: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein (Oxford University Press, 1982).

Frank Close’s The Infinity Puzzle: Quantum Field Theory and the Hunt for an Orderly Universe is another entry in this too-small category. The Infinity Puzzle takes on the complicated and somewhat controversial history of the development of modern quantum field theory, beginning with quantum electrodynamics in the 1940s and walking the reader through electroweak unification and quantum chromodynamics in the 1970s. (The title is a reference to the infinities that plagued the earliest attempts to calculate basic properties of quantum particles.) This book covers much the same ground as, but with considerably more detail than, Ian Sample’s more whiggish Massive: The Missing Particle That Sparked the Greatest Hunt in Science (Basic Books, 2010; reviewed by Michael Peskin in Physics Today, May 2011, page 47). Sample provided a high-level overview of the theoretical developments leading up to what is now called the Higgs mechanism; Close gets into the details of who predicted what, and when, and also who missed what, and when.

As Close points out, the Higgs mechanism might be better called the “Anderson-Brout-Englert-Guralnik-Hagen-Higgs-Kibble-’t Hooft mechanism” for the eight men who independently developed it in the early 1960s. The story of its development is a tale of interdisciplinary physics, in that key insights regarding symmetry breaking in electroweak interactions come from condensed-matter physics; odd coincidences, such as the British postal strike that prevented Carl Richard Hagen and Gerald Guralnik from learning of their competitors’ work; and missed opportunities. The tangled history could easily become incomprehensible, but Close tells the story very well, particularly in highlighting poor communications that delayed by years the completion of the electroweak unification theory. Examples include a brief conversation between Sheldon Glashow and Peter Higgs, neither of whom realized that their two theories could be combined; another encounter in which John Ward prevented Guralnik from talking about his research; and Robert Marshak’s discouraging Guralnik from continuing to work on the weak force.

Another important contribution by Close is a detailed reconstruction of the disputed history of the strong-interaction theory. David Gross, Frank Wilczek, and David Politzer shared the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics for that work, but each has provided somewhat contradictory descriptions of how they reached their conclusions and about how much discussion took place between Gross and Wilczek at Princeton University and Politzer and Sidney Coleman at Harvard University. Close goes over their stories in detail, drawing on published comments and personal conversations in an attempt to piece together a coherent chronology; his explanation of the reconstruction process is almost as fascinating as the underlying science.

In some places, Close’s focus on the details—in particular his discussion of Abdus Salam’s work—threatens to become inside baseball. Close devotes the better part of a chapter to the question of how Salam came to share the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics and how Ward, his key collaborator, was left out. The section might strike some readers as being too much Nobel gossip and perhaps a little uncharitable toward Salam.

The physics explanations in The Infinity Puzzle are admirably clear. That is impressive since the book contains no equations and yet goes into more detail than similar popularizations about gauge invariance, Yang–Mills theories, Goldstone bosons, superconductivity, and Bjorken scaling in electron–proton scattering experiments. Those detailed discussions require more work from the nonexpert reader, but the extra effort will be well rewarded.

The Infinity Puzzle is an excellent presentation of the history of what is arguably the greatest achievement of 20th-century theoretical physics. Anyone with an interest in physics will enjoy the book, but physicists and those studying the history of science will find it particularly rewarding.

Chad Orzel is an associate professor of physics at Union College in Schenectady, New York, where he works on experimental atomic, molecular, and optical physics with laser-cooled atoms. He is the author of How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog (Basic Books, 2012).