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Longing for the Harmonies


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Frank Wilczek is a theoretical physicist. He has won many awards for his contributions to physics, including the 2004 Nobel Prize, and also for his writing. He is currently Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics at MIT. Betsy Devine writes about science and humor.


The title here sums up today's Big Bang scientists at sea among the theoretical dissonances and paradoxes they've tried to express in their GUTS (Grand Unified Theories), which ask the question Leibnitz posed long ago: Why is there something rather than nothing? Wilczek, physics professor at UC Santa Barbara, and his coauthor wife are only the latest but certainly among the most original writers who have tried to capture the current physics scene in a book. They sum up, in somewhat the form of ``themes and variations''the authors are music loverssuch challenging problems of ``quantal reality'' as cosmic uniformity, interchangeability, etc. Sharply knowledgeable, they discuss the nature of light (they transform ``waves'' and ``lumps'' to a new word, laves) and run the gamut from quarks, colour (they choose the British spelling), mesons, gluons et al. to deep views on matter, antimatter and what may be the most exciting and seminal concept in the new physics: symmetry. Here they have a crack at answering Leibnitz's questionan arresting climax to a book loaded with astounding insights and riddles. Photos. (November 16)

Wilczek (physics, University of California, Santa Barbara) and Devine (a former Guggenheim fellow) point out that modern physics is organized around a limited number of themes. They try to show that as a composer creates music by blending together esthetically pleasing variations, scientists create theories of the universe by developing intellectually pleasing concepts; new results disproving old theories create disharmonies that must be erased by superior theory. While this idea is basically correct, the musical analogy is forced and gets lost; but this is a nice exposition of modern physics for readers with some science background. Harold D. Shane, Baruch College of CUNY

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