Reviews: The Infinity Puzzle

Dive into in depth reviews of The Infinity Puzzle and The Particle at the End of the Universe.

Cosmic Variance
By Sean Carroll
Nov 26, 2012 1:25 AMApr 26, 2023 2:38 PM


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Many writerly friends of mine swear with a straight face that they never look at reviews of their books. I have tried but failed to comprehend the inner workings of these alien minds; personally, as much as I know it might pain me, I can't help but read reviews. Sometimes I might even learn something! Or at least be gratified, in this nice review of The Particle at the End of the Universe by Adam Frank at NPR. Or, on the other hand, simply be amazed and astonished. The most amusing "review" so far has come from one of the good readers at Amazon, working under the nom de plume "Chosenbygrace Notworks," and coming with the to-the-point title "Arrogant atheist `science'." Apparently Chosenbygrace is not handicapped by actually having read the book, but did hear me talk on Coast to Coast AM. Here's the opening:

Sean Carroll is a typical atheist physicist who arrogantly disregards creationists to the point where he does not even acknowledge they exist unless prompted (like happened on Coast to Coast AM tonight). The liberal media and filled with money sapping money-obsessed morons like this, willing to indebt any generation of Americans into becoming slaves. It's already happened, and Americans in general are all debt slaves because of atheism-theoretical-physics cultists like this, and the idiot atheists who worship delusional morons like this.

It goes on, but, you know, probably the gist has been conveyed. The physics/atheism connection is a classic, of course, but I hadn't been aware that we in the cult were also responsible for plunging Americans into debt. 5 out of 425 people found the review helpful, so at least someone is being helped! (In fairness, the Amazon review by Ashutosh Jogalekar probably does a better job of conveying what's in the book than any I've yet seen.) Other reviews are puzzling, and I have to mention one in particular. Across the puddle, Times Higher Education published a review by physicist Frank Close, who is unquestionably an expert.

His book The Infinity Puzzle is an extremely careful and comprehensive overview of modern quantum field theory, with a special eye on the history of the subject, carefully elucidating which physicists were responsible for which insights along the way. And he liked my book, saying it's the best of the recent Higgs offerings (a small pool, admittedly). He also point out a number of "wobbles." For some reason I not only claimed that Peter Higgs is Scottish (a mistake everyone makes, as he has worked at Edinburgh for decades now), but also Jeffrey Goldstone (a mistake original to me, made for no good reason at all; sorry, Jeffrey!). More seriously, he accuses me of several egregious historical mistakes, which would indeed be troubling -- if they actually reflected what was in my book. I'm not sure why this happened, but I thought the factual record was worth setting straight. Close first says that, in my book, "Sheldon Lee Glashow's prediction of the Z boson is attributed to Steven Weinberg and Abdus Salam." Here is what I actually wrote about Glashow:

(pp. 232-233): [Glashow's] idea seemed to be able to accommodate the known features of both the weak and electromagnetic interactions... But it deviated from what was known by predicting a new gauge boson: something that was neutral but massive, what we now call the Z. There was no evidence for such a particle at the time, so the model didn't capture many people's attention.

And here's what I wrote about Weinberg and Salam with respect to the Z:

(p. 235): Weinberg put together what every modern graduate student in particle physics would immediately recognize as the "electroweak" sector of the Standard Model. In the references he cited Glashow's paper, but he still wasn't aware of the one by Salam and Ward. Using Kibble's ideas, he was able to make a direct prediction for the masses of the W and Z bosons -- something Glashow and Salam and Ward weren't able to do. (p. 236-237): The main novel prediction of the Glashow, Salam-Ward, and Weinberg models was the existence of a heavy neutral boson, the Z.

I don't see why anyone would read that as attributing the Z boson to Weinberg and Salam rather than to Glashow. Close then says "although Glashow is mentioned elsewhere, J.C. Ward - with whom Salam rediscovered Glashow's ideas three years too late - is invisible." Here's what appears in my book, in which I enliven my discussion of Ward ... by quoting from Frank Close's book.

(pp. 233-234): While the ingredients Glashow put together in his attempt to unify electromagnetism with the weak interactions might seem a bit arbitrary, there was clearly something sensible about them: across the ocean in Britain, at Imperial College, almost exactly the same theory was being put together by Abdus Salam and John Ward. Each physicist individually was very accomplished. Ward, who was born in Britain but spent various years living in Australia and the U.S., was a pioneer of quantum electrodynamics. He is probably best known within physics for the “Ward identities” in quantum field theory, mathematical relations that enforce local symmetries. Salam, who was born in Pakistan when it was still joined with India under British control, would eventually become politically active and serve as an advocate for science in the developing world. They were frequent collaborators, and some of their most interesting work was done together, on the question of unifying the forces. Following very similar logic to Glashow, Salam and Ward invented a model with two different symmetries, one of which violated parity and the other did not, and which predicted a massless photon and three massive weak gauge bosons. Their paper was published in 1964, apparently without being aware of Glashow’s earlier work. Like Glashow, they broke symmetries by hand in their model. Unlike Glashow, they had no excuse for doing so: they were working literally down the hall from Guralnik, Hagen, and Kibble, who were concentrating full-time on spontaneous symmetry breaking. Part of the failure of communication might have been due to Ward’s naturally reticent nature. In his book The Infinity Puzzle, Frank Close relates a revealing story told by Gerald Guralnik: Guralnik and Ward were having lunch together in a local pub, and Guralnik started to talk about his work — yet to be completed — on hidden symmetry. “I did not get far before [Ward] stopped me. He proceeded to give me a lecture on how I should not be free with my unpublished ideas, because they would be stolen, and often published before I had a chance to finish working on them.” As a result of this admonishment, Guralnik did not ask Ward about the work that he himself was doing with Salam. Even if one takes such a cautious approach to discussing unpublished work, even the most secretive physicist usually isn’t reluctant to talk about published results. For whatever reason, however, Salam and Ward didn’t catch on to what Guralnik, Hagen and Kibble had proposed until several years later.

And then of course the mention on p. 235 quoted above, as well as when I briefly note the Nobel Prize for electroweak unification:

(p. 237): Events of precisely this kind were observed at CERN’s Gargamelle detector in 1973, setting the stage for Glashow, Salam, and Weinberg to share the Nobel Prize in 1979. (Ward was left out, but only three people can share the prize in any one year.)

Admittedly this doesn't amount to a very in-depth discussion, but keep in mind that in only one chapter out of 13 do I talk about the history of the Higgs mechanism at all; that wasn't the point of my book. I don't think the above renders Ward "invisible." As just one more example, Close writes that "Higgs alone drew attention to the role of the eponymous massive boson, whose decays are crucial to proving the mechanism experimentally. This point doesn't come across." Here's the first time I mention this point:

(p. 224): Among the additions Higgs made after his second paper was rejected was a comment noting that his model didn’t only make the gauge bosons massive, it also predicted the existence of a massive scalar boson — the first explicit appearance of what we now know and love as “the Higgs boson.”

Here's the second time:

(p. 225): While one might argue about whether it was Anderson or Englert & Brout or Higgs who first proposed the Higgs mechanism by which gauge bosons become massive, Higgs himself has a good claim to the first appearance of the Higgs boson, the particle that we are now using as evidence that this is how nature works.

Here's the third time:

(p. 238): Perhaps most importantly, “Higgs boson” sounds like a good name for a particle. It was Higgs’s papers that first drew close attention to the boson particle rather than the “mechanism” from which it arose, but that’s not quite enough to explain the naming convention.

Maybe the point would have come across had a repeated it another three or four times, but at some point one simply has to trust that the reader is paying sufficiently close attention. I'll confess that I am utterly uninterested in the question of who is going to win the Nobel Prize. I know that other people find it enormously important, which is why I devoted even one of my thirteen chapters to going through the history. (That, and the excuse to discuss the spontaneous symmetry breaking and the electroweak model in more detail than would otherwise be palatable in a popular book.) Love the experiments, love the theories, really not that interested in who wins the prizes. But it's crucially important to get the history right, nevertheless; the people who did the work deserve that much respect. So if I did misrepresent any important moments in the history of physics, I would love to know and will readily make corrections in future printings. I just don't think these examples qualify.

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