THE INFINITY PUZZLE
By Frank Close, Basic Hooks, 435 pp., $28.99
PHYSICS ON THE FRINGE
By Margaret Wertheim, Walker, 323 pp., $27
"SHUT UP AND CALCULATE!"
As physics became more mathematical and abstract during the past century, that phrase--first uttered by physicist David Mermin--became its mantra. Indeed, the more that physicists stopped worrying about what their complicated equations meant and simply ran the numbers, the more progress they made. Some of their predictions have now been confirmed by experiments to 10 decimal places or more-the most accurate predictions in history. But the cost of this progress was striking: physics became more and more alienating as fewer and fewer people understood it.
As Frank Close explains in The Infinity Puzzle, for a long time even physicists felt discontent at this state of affairs. 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.
Real objects cannot have infinite charge or mass or whatever. But when scientists in the 1950s started calculating those quantities with their latest and fanciest theories, infinities kept sprouting up and ruining things. Rather than abandon the theories, though, a few persistent scientists realized that they could do away with the infinities through mathematical prestidigitation. (Basically, they started calculating with and canceling out infinity like a regular old number, normally a big no-no.)
No one liked this fudging, but because it led to such stunningly accurate answers, scientists couldn't dismiss it. In fact, the reigning paradigm in physics today--which describes the workings of invisible "fields" (similar to magnetic fields)--would not exist without this hand waving. And now physics is stuck with fields: they've become more fundamental to understanding the universe than mass or charge. Fields have become the very fabric of reality--even if our understanding of them relies on some unrealistic assumptions. Close explains how and why physicists resigned themselves to this tension and came to trust--even celebrate--how much smarter their equations were than they were.
Nevertheless, despite the imprimatur of scientists, some laypeople look at modern science and have a fit...