A Beautiful Question by Frank Wilczek

A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design by Frank Wilczek (Penguin Press, 2015) 430 pages.

ABQ Wilczek

I read this book because I read Wilczek’s previous book from 2008 called The Lightness of Being. Unlike 90% of the books I read, this 2008 book stays on the shelf right beside me, mainly because of Plate 6, which shows a color representation of the collision of quark and anti-quark, two constituents of elementary particles such as protons. These appear not as little balls as we often imagine atoms to be, but two smudges of barely visible gray. As they collide, they flow into green and red clouds and knots of condensed energy (Einstein showed that mass is a form of “frozen energy”), finally ending up as a thing known as a “pi meson.” I keep it handy to remind myself that deep down, this often grungy-appearing universe we inhabit is stunningly beautiful when seen the right way.

Everything is light, says Wilczek’s 2008 book (hence the title), and this 2015 book follows up with the fact that not only is everything energy and light, but that it’s beautiful as well. Not only in terms of color, but in a mathematical sense: particles and forces array themselves in neat arrays governed by a few principles. But this is jumped ahead a bit…let’s start with the 2015 book itself.

It is certainly fitting that a book on the beauty of reality is a beauty of a book. And all for a hardcover list price of about 30 dollars, and a discount price less than 20 (there is also paperback edition at about the same price as the hardcover). The dust jacket has a cutout that reveals the front cover itself: a beautiful antique full-color reproduction of the circumpolar constellations, balanced by a pure white rear cover.

Inside, you’ll find not one but two full-color sections of illustrations, from Plate A to Z and then from Plate AA to AAA (ZZ wraps to AAA). There are also 43 text figures, although these are not in color. That’s 96 of them in all, many more times as many than you would find in a typical science-oriented text.

How come? Two reasons: First of all, Wilczek is a Nobel Prize winner with a couple of best-selling science books to his credit (this book is the #1 Bestseller in Quantum Theory at Amazon). Second, Wilczek is a heck of a good writer. If anything, people who read about physics or have read his previous books might grow impatient at how the author patiently travels through 2500 years of science and mathematics to get to the point where readers can easily follow his main point, if not how modern physics has established it all (that would require some heavy-duty math, I’m afraid).
This is not just a book: it’s almost a textbook. The main text ends on page 328, and is followed by Acknowledgements and more than 100 pages in six other sections. These are a Timeline of main discoveries, Terms of Art (a kind of glossary), Notes, Recommended Reading (both classical and modern), Illustration Credits (all those color plates, mainly), and an Index. The Terms of Art are most valuable, in case you forgot what the electromagnetic fluid is (he prefers the term “fluid” to the more common “field”) or what an Axion is (it’s what Wilczek won the Nobel for, of course, and he knows it was a laundry detergent—but the international physics committees didn’t). I always have to look up hadrons and leptons, so it helps to have all this right at your fingertips.
So the book is a bit of a wild ride. Where does it end up? Basically, at Plates TT through XX, explained on pages 260 to 305 (actually, Plates RR and SS set the whole climax up).
It’s important to note that while Wilczek can tell us what the current “Core Theory” consists of—he does not like the more common description if what we think we know as the “standard Model”—no one, even a Nobel Prize winner can tell us why the universe is the way it is.

For example, if you look at Plate RR, you find that the universe consists of six fundamental “entities” and three fundamental forces. He calls them “entities” because we really have no idea what they “really” are. We know they aren’t little billiard balls that spin around (although, confusingly, they have a property called “spin” that carries their angular momentum). Not only that, but these “entities” repeat our normal “reality” at two higher energy levels. Why? No one knows—yet.

So protons are made up of three quarks. At our everyday energy levels, these are the up and down quarks. Add energy, and you can make a “super proton” out of the strange and charm quarks. Still more energy, and you get a “super duper proton” made out of top and bottom quarks. (They wanted to call them “truth” and “beauty,” but that would just be silly, right?)
Each “family” gets a type of electron and neutrino to go with it, but there are only three major families. Why? It might have something to do with quarks carrying electric charges in thirds (like +1/3), but maybe not. In fact, there might even be a fourth family that has eluded us.

So the whole book is really a package to allow the readers to understand Plates VV and WW. These extend the idea of symmetry (as among the three families above) from what we currently know is real to what Wilczek would like to see as the “ideal” ultimate reality. And scientists might be getting very close.

You might think that quantum physics is one of those things you can just ignore and things will take care of themselves, like when driving your car. If the “check engine” light ever comes on, you can take it to the mechanic and let them worry about it. Quantum effects were once thought to be absolutely limited to things so tiny that what scientists call “quantum weirdness” would never intrude on our world or everyday reality. But now it seems that photosynthesis, cellular protein and DNA processes, and even computers of the future all might be tied up with to quantum theory. (See, for example, Life On the Edge in this series.) Once, calculus was a mathematical magical mystery understood by only a handful of people in the world. Soon, a basic appreciation of quantum physics might be a pre-requisite for something as simple as graduating from high school.

But don’t worry about getting lost: just reach for Wilczek’s A Beautiful Question. 🙂

I liked this book because science books often emphasize what we know and pretend what we don’t know isn’t really there. Everything is “just so”: logical and in its place. Like going to see the neighbor’s house for the first time and the living room is neatly done, the kitchen spotless, and all the beds made. Then you hear a bump and a scrape and you go “What’s in the attic?” and the neighbors go, “Oh, no one knows what’s in the attic. We haven’t got a ladder to climb up there yet. But it’s probably not very important or interesting.” But every visit, the noises get louder and louder until they can’t be ignored.

Read this book to see how messy—but still beautiful—the universe we live in really is.

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