the guardian Fri 26 June 2009
Gremlins permitting, the enormous particle accelerator known as the Large Hadron Collider will begin operating in anger this autumn. What are the LHC scientists hoping to find? What will it mean if they do find it? Better ask a Nobel-winning physicist. Luckily Wilczek is one and has written a highly engaging book to bring the reader up to speed on the current model of particle physics, and to sketch out one "unification" hypothesis that the LHC might illuminate.
Wilczek likes to use his own terminology - he finds the "standard model" of quantum physics "a grotesquely modest name for one of humankind's greatest achievements" and renames it the "core theory"; he employs the name "the grid" for "the primary world-stuff" of spacetime and fields ("Ordinary matter," he argues in one quasi-Platonic moment, "is a secondary manifestation of the grid"). The discussion of colour gluons and antiquarks gets crunchy, but there are also many jokes and a pleasingly ecumenical philosophy. Wilczek takes the Jesuit credo "It is more blessed to ask forgiveness than permission" as his own scientific ideal, and inverts Popper for the splendidly Colbertian condition that a good theory should be "truthifiable". He explains how he found his vocation: "When I was growing up, I loved the idea that great powers and secret meanings lurk behind the appearance of things." Maybe scientists are the best conspiracy theorists.