Non-Fiction Reviews


Mass
The Quest to Understand Matter
from Greek Atoms to Quantum Fields

(2017) , Oxford University Press, 20 / US$27.95, hrdbk, xvii+ 346pp, ISBN 978-0-198-75971-3

 

Former chemistry university lecturer, then industrial chemist, Jim Baggott, has written half a dozen popular science books over the past one and a half decades, his previous one being Origins: The Scientific Story of Creation, and Mass is his latest.

The notion of 'mass' to many (well, to me) embodies the idea of matter, substance and solidity it's atoms isn't it? but, as Baggott reveals, it is not that simple.

Baggott's book effectively takes us through humanity's understanding as to what is mass, beginning (and Sheldon Cooper would approve) the ancient Greeks.  In four chapters he takes us through discovery leading to new discovery and the concept of the atom that only came about around the start of the nineteenth century.

From there Baggott takes use through the wave-particle (surely particles have mass?) duality of light to Einsten's famous proportionality of mass with energy and we are firmly at the dawn of the 20th century.  At this point it is only a short hop, skip and a jump to quantum theory.  At this point the reader might be forgiven in thinking that God is a mathematician as quantum theory almost simply springs forth from the mathematical properties of mass and electromagnetic energy. Fortunately for a non-physicist reader like myself (my physics stopped at A-level and that was almost nearly half a century ago) while Jim Baggott uses some equations, he uses them very sparingly, largely relying on his narrative which is not hard to follow, logical and convincing.

Finally, we enter the world of symmetry and the new physics of fields as well as the 'standard model'. Here it does get a bit weird. For example, it is possible to think of particles as having no mass unless it interacts with a particular field. But I am getting ahead of myself and readers will want to make this journey for themselves.  The thing is that unlike the end of the nineteenth century scientists, a number of whom it could be said had thought they had nearly got everything sorted, it is clear at the end of the 20th century if not well into the 21st, that we still have much to elucidate.

Jim Baggott's book is surprisingly easy to read given the complexity of the subject. Having said that readers will need at least good O-level/GCSE (British school qualifications for 16 year-olds) or their equivalent in other countries.  There is much more detail, and references for those that want more or to find starting points for further specialist personal investigation (these days so easy with internet search engines) and these are at the book's end along with a useful subject index.  One of the other things I greatly liked was the 'five things we learned' short bullet points at the end of each chapter. This greatly helps the reader to digest the somewhat rich meal each chapter presents.

In the past couple of decades we have seen in my area of the life sciences the rise of genomics having sequenced the human genome and those of other species. This has led to leaps in our understanding in areas as diverse as ecology and pharmaceuticals (but which leaves us with a number of ethical problems from three parent offspring to the genetic editing of humans). Material scientists and electrical engineers have provided the hardware, and information scientists the software for a revolution in the way we live which is now far more interconnected with instant accesses to data (but which still leaves us having to decide whether its good data or fake news).  But there are still some basic, fundamental questions that need answering.  What is mass is one of these.  Here Jim Baggott tells a fascinating story.

Jonathan Cowie


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