|Oxford University Press|
the guardian Sat 30 January 2010
It was my vestigial fondness for Star Trek, as well as my interest in the more exotic corners of science, that attracted me to this book; but there is a chance it will also be picked up by the kind of people who read Dan Brown's books and imagine that they bear some relation to the truth. Apparently, in his Angels and Demons, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research is busy making an antimatter bomb, and some baddie somewhere is plotting to blow up the Vatican with it, or some such preposterous nonsense.
Scientists are by now familiar with the phenomenon whereby legitimate research is distorted by writers of popular fiction, but this doesn't stop them, thankfully, from standing up every now and then to set matters straight. Frank Close's book is a particularly good example, being better written than most (this is not faint praise; a lot of scientists who want to get their point across to the lay audience do so in lucid and elegant prose), although it is helped in part by the fact that antimatter is fascinating in its own right, whether it's being used to blow up the Vatican or not.
It is true that antimatter has awesome destructive potential (and, likewise, awesome creative potential). Half a gramme of the stuff, efficiently annihilated, would release the energy of a Hiroshima; and it is possible that the Tunguska event, the 1908 explosion in Siberia, was caused by a lump of antirock a metre across hitting the earth. (It wasn't, almost certainly, but at least Close tells us why this is the case, and considers the evidence seriously.) Scientists have been proposing antimatter as a propulsive force for decades; apparently, the research is still going on. The US Air Force is or was working on an antimatter-powered aircraft; the prototype will have a maximum wingspan of three feet and will fire paintballs. It will also, I bet you a hundred pounds, never be built. As Close explains carefully, and more than once in case we weren't listening, antimatter is horrendously difficult to make, and next to impossible to store in any kind of bulk; at current rates, to make a nanogramme would take a thousand centuries, and containing something that annihilates any matter it comes into contact with is, to say the least, problematic.
But it's weird enough to be fascinating anyway. An antirock would look indistinguishable from a rock in our world; it is possible, for instance, that there are alien worlds and people made of the stuff, and it would be important to establish which they were made of before any physical contact took place. (Close guides us through the protocol, helpfully.) But as for the discovery of antimatter, that in itself is mind-boggling. It is all in the maths; 80 years ago, it was Paul Dirac who discovered the necessity for antimatter to exist in the equations governing relativity and quantum mechanics. (Even I can grasp that a number squared can have both positive and negative roots.)
Be prepared, though, for some serious brainwork. Close may be as clear a writer as a scientist can be, but there is no getting round some difficult concepts. I suggest you treat them aesthetically. Here is where we find science as beautiful and incomprehensible as a poem by John Ashbery; cloud chambers, bubble chambers; quarks, leptons, muons, kaons; strong and weak forces, Penning traps; and the concept that it is useful to think of the positron (the anti-electron) as an electron travelling backwards in time. I do not pretend to understand all this, but there are moments when it seems to make sense, much as a medieval peasant might have had moments of lucidity and comprehension during the familiar but baffling words of the Latin mass. Those who say, though, that we take the statements of scientists as credulously as the masses used to take the pronouncements of the clergy, should bear in mind that the scientific stuff works, produces both measurable and useful results; and to miss out on books like this is to miss out on a grasp of the astounding nature of the universe, and the minds of the people who are mapping it out for us.