Lightness of Being; Mass, Ether and the Unification of Forces
Frank Wilczek (Nobel Laureate in Physics), (Basic Books 2008).
was attracted to this book by its title.
There is a mythology book I
simply loved back in the 1980s. A book with a fascinating peppering
of social evolution observations by the title The Time Falling
Bodies Take to Light: Mythology, Sexuality & the Origin of
Culture by William Irwin Thompson. (St. Martins 1981). Wilczek’s
title seemed somewhat similar, grabbing my attention because of
Wilczek chose the title in part because it is a
variation on one of his own favorite books: The Unbearable Lightness
of Being by Milan Kundera. He also chose the title because it fit
the book’s content.
loved Wilczek's book too, but perhaps not as much as I loved Thompson’s
book. Perhaps? Yes, because I don’t know if I accurately remember
how much I loved that book almost three decades ago. I have it on my
bookshelf, and will have to read it once more.
why did I select another book on modern physics? Because I was very
critical of another book on physics (click here if you really want
to go there) and am always looking to see if my harsh criticisms are
justified, given that physics is moving ahead at an amazing pace, and
physicists are learning new things continually. I loved this book
because it shared many new insights that were explained in a way that
I could understand. Amazing!
what were the highlights of this book, for me?
32-34 caught my attention because they discuss some elementary
particles, how they were first predicted from theory and then
observed in experiments. There was none of this phony discussion of
the observer’s mind, the observer’s expectations, influencing the
outcome of experiments to create the particles that were expected.
This was one of the claims I attacked in the above-noted and linked critical review.
102 mentions two more subatomic entities predicted and then observed.
But its point is that although we are getting to know the particles and the forces of subatomic, quantum physics, the problem of quantum gravity is still
unsolved. This is the topic of several books on superstring theory I
read last year, and given how difficult the concepts of superstring
theory were for me to understand, I was surprised and amused at these
observations by Wilczek about superstring theory:
theory is a valiant attempt but very much a work in progress. At
present it’s more a collection of hints about what a theory might
look like rather than a concrete world-model with definite algorithms
and predictions. And it hasn’t deeply incorporated the basic Grid
ideas. (For experts: string field theory is clumsy at best.)
really liked Wiczek’s explanation of the “Grid.” On page 76,
he explains he might have selected the word “Matrix,” but . . .
“the sequels tarnished that candidate.” On page 75 he
illustrated “empty space” as being a multidimensional Grid
containing dark energy, condensates, a metric field and a quantum
where does ordinary matter come from, the stuff we are made of?
Wilczek says that
matter is a secondary manifestation of the Grid, tracing its level of
was hoping that he would mention that in order to have matter arise
from a vacuum requires serious excitation, since this is a point I
drove home in my very critical review. The origin of mass, as we
experience it, is the primary subject of the book, and the
explanation is one of the more fascinating things I have read in a
very long time. I understood it when I read it, but would have to
read it again, several times, to explain it.
maybe I was too mean about the need to prod the vacuum with serious
energy intrusions to get anything resembling matter to arise from it.
I suggested the only place we see spontaneous formation of matter
now is in our power-tools for physicists and at the high-energy
boundary of a black hole. But perhaps this is missing the point that
the energy required for making the vacuum interact with real
particles, through forming virtual particles in reaction, is not all
that high. It goes on all the time, but we don't observe it except
in our high-energy experiments or at the edge of black holes.
Shooting an electrically- or ‘color’-charged particle into the
vacuum stimulates formation of short lived virtual particles that
effectively shield the intruding particle, thus reducing the spatial
persistence of energy fields associated with the particle, and this
has implications for why we see things, and do not see things, in the
found it fascinating that Wilczek drew insights from earlier
physicists about new and very modern notions. Page 105 gives an
example, using Newton from 1692, and Einstein from 1917, to show they
realized that the vacuum of space must play a role in distributing
matter in the universe, hence it must have properties, including a
dark energy and a non-zero density.
pages 117 and 118, Wilczek explains Einstein’s “spooky
action-at-a-distance.” This is a favorite cited by the ‘new age’
-branch of physics- <my joke>, and one I mercilessly attacked
in my mean review. Wilczek dismisses the mystery the same way I did,
by saying it’s a simple effect reflecting quantum mechanics
dictating that two particles (“qubits” in Wilczek’s parlance)
close together will have opposite spin orientations, and when you
separate them, no matter how far, conservation of momentum has their
spin orientations remain the same. This effect, says Wilczek,
. . .
“would annoy Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen, because they exhibit
the essence of the famous EPR paradox. Measuring the spin of the
first qubit tells you about the result you’ll get by measuring the
second bit, even though they might be physically separated by a large
distance. On the face of it, this “spooky action-at-a-distance,”
to use Einstein’s phrase, seems capable of transmitting information
(telling the second spin which way it must point) faster than the
speed of light. But that’s an illusion, because to get two qubits
into a definite state we had to start with them close together.
Later we can take them far apart, but if the qubits can’t travel
faster than the speed of light, neither can any message they carry
context for this aside is a (more important) explanation of why the
model for understanding quantum reality has 32 dimensions! Pages
quantum Grid, which embodies our deepest understanding of reality,
qubits at each point in space and time.
The qubits at a point describe the various things that might be
happening at that point. For example, one of them describes the
probability that (if you look) you will observe an electron with spin
up or down, another the probability that (if you look) you will
observe an electron with spin up or down, another the probability
that (if you look) you will observe an antielectron with spin up or
down, another the probability that (if you look) you will observe a
quark with spin up or down. . . . Others describe possible results if
you look for photons, gluons, or other particles. On top of that, if
space and time are continuous–as the existing laws of physics, so
far very successfully, assume–then the number of space-time points
is highly infinite
. . .
We’ve talked before about the spontaneous activity of the Grid.
It’s full of quantum fluctuations, or virtual particles. Those are
rough, informal descriptions of a reality we now have the language to
express more precisely. To say that the Grid contains spontaneous
activity is to say that its state is not a simple one. If we look
with high resolution in space and time we see what’s going on in
the entity we call empty space . . ., we find many possible results.
Each time we look we see something different. Each observation
uncovers a piece of the wave function that describes a typical, very
small region of space. Each observation embodies a possibility that
occurs, multiplied by some probability amplitude, within that wave
. . .
There are (at least) two fundamental reasons why it can be very
difficult to predict the future, even if we have all the right
equations. One is chaos theory. Roughly speaking, chaos theory says
that small uncertainties in your knowledge of the state of the world
at time t0
introduce very large uncertainties in what you can deduce about the
state of the world at a significantly later time t1.
other is quantum theory. As we’ve discussed, quantum theory
generally predicts probabilities, not uncertainties. Actually,
quantum theory gives you perfectly definite equations for how the
wave function of a system changes with time. But when you use the
wave function to predict what you’ll observe, what it gives you is
a set of probabilities for different outcomes.
The last two paragrpahs seem as applicable to real-world predictions over long times and spaces as they are applicable to subatomic physics. A
related observation is made on page 123:
we’ve got “empty” space humming, we can pluck it. That is, we
can disturb Grid by injecting some extra activity and letting things
settle down. If we find stable, localized concentrations of energy,
we’ve found–that is, computed–stable particles. We can match
them, (if the theory’s right!) To protons p,
and the rest. If we find localized concentrations of energy that
persist for a good while before dissipating, we’ve found unstable
particles. They should match the p
meson, the baryon, and their kin.
of this interesting discussion is in the context of what can be
calculated, and observed in experiments, and how much progress and
knowledge that represents. Page 127 concludes:
difficult calculations of merciless precision that call upon the full
power of modern computer technology, they’ve shown that unbendable
equations of high symmetry account convincingly and in quantitative
detail for the existence of protons and neutrons, and for their
properties. They’ve demonstrated the origin of the proton’s
mass, and thereby the lioness’s share of our
mass. I believe this is one of the greatest scientific achievements
of all time.
10 covers pages 128 through 132 is all, but it is an important
chapter for me because it explains that doing calculations isn’t
enough, one also needs to obtain understanding and that is
accomplished through simpler abstractions, models that can be shown
to have limited applicability but support insight, and thus translate
into understanding and knowledge.
129-130 mention that the great breakthrough mentioned in the previous
chapter, about the mass of protons and neutrons, require them to be
made of nearly massless quarks and gluons.
equations of QCD [Quantum Chromo-Dynamics] output Mass Without Mass.
It sounds suspiciously like something for nothing. How did it
it is possible to get a rough, professor-like understanding
of that apparent miracle. We just have to put together three ideas
we’ve already discussed separately.
then discusses these three ideas and wraps them into an explanation.
I am not going to repeat it here, read the book, but I will
paraphrase his last lines on page 132 as saying in essence: that your
weight [how mass is measured on Earth] is your energy content. Makes
me feel powerful, since I am overweight!
page 134 Wilczek reaches into the realm of ancient science and modern
mysticism to comment on the “Music of the Spheres.” He basically
suggests that we are plucking the instrument that makes that music,
so-called empty space, by injecting particles and watching space
react, measuring the energies, which indicates the mass, of resulting
masses of particles sound the Music of the Grid.”
152 and 153 at the start of Chapter 16, have Wilczek recapitulating
the dynamics that lead to a mass for a proton. It is still
complicated, but this time it is laid out in even plainer plain
language, with a joke at the end about “The Revenge of the Grid”
as a sci-fi theme. I was originally going to cite that language here
because it is the heart of the book for me, but I don’t want to
discourage you from getting the book and reading for yourself.
156 and 157 were very interesting in their discussion of fundamental
constants and relationships and how they . . . “are the enablers of
profound principles of physics that couldn’t make sense without
179 wraps up a discussion of symmetry with an explanation of why
things do not look as they should in experiments that “actively
transfer large amounts of momentum and energy to the object being
probed.” Wilczek is discussing high-energy accelerators (page 180)
and the necessity of correcting for distortions of what we expect to
see by the effects of the dynamics of the Grid. Referring to the
solid basis of what is known about subatomic particles, embedded in
the Standard Model, as the Core, Wilczek observes:
great lesson from the Core is that the entity we perceive as empty
space is in reality a dynamic medium full of structure and activity.
The Grid, as we’ve called it, affects the properties of everything
within it–that is, everything. We see things not as they are, but
as through a glass, darkly. In particular, the Grid is aboil with
virtual particles, and these can screen or antiscreen a source. That
phenomenon, for the strong force, was central to the stories that
unfolded in Parts I and II. [of this book] It occurs for the other
Wilczek makes reference to the aforementioned coupling constants,
fundamental constants that physics relies on:
the coupling values we see depend on how we look. If we look
crudely, we will not discern the basic sources themselves, but will
see their images as distorted by the Grid. We will, in other words,
see the basic sources mixed together with the cloud of virtual
particles that surround them, unresolved. To judge whether perfect
symmetry and unity of the forces occurs, we should correct for the
of forces has previously been referred to as the Holy Grail of
physics. On pages 180-181 Wilczek shows how much closer the forces
correlate after distortions are corrected for. But it is still not
close enough to allow a claim of unification to be made.
gets us very close to unification is supersymmetry (SUSY) with its
added dimensions. Wilczek --and I got a chuckle out of this--
cautions against New Age and sci-fi love for SUSY:
you get carried away with visions of spirit worlds and wormholes
through hyperspace, let me hasten to add that the new dimensions have
a very different character from the different dimensions of space and
time. They are quantum
the next page Wilczek explains that these new dimensions as
additional (“new”) layers of the grid. In these layers spin and
mass may change but charges stay the same. With these insights
factored in, all forces can be unified except gravity. On page 191
Wilczek proclaims that . . . “gravity fits too! (Roughly)”.
Promises for further knowledge from the most recent additions to the
power-tool kits available to physicists are foreshadowed in the last
discusses cosmology in several places and nicely explains dark matter as invisible matter, neither absorbing nor reflecting light. He
does not explain the nature of dark energy but discusses its
necessity to modern physics on numerous pages (see the index).
got my attention was page 105, where Einstein’s cosmological
constant is equated with dark matter. Interesting.
insights are invoked repeatedly, but I was hoping Wilczek would
address the idea of other universes with different fundamental
physical properties. He hinted somewhere early in the book that this
was not likely, I believe, but I can’t find it back. I may actually
have imagined it, after all the science fiction book I read just
before reading Wilczek, called Otherness
by David Brin (Bantam 1994), on its page 333 suggested that since
black holes are where one universe spins off another, parallel
universe, the seeds for new universes lie in older universes and
the birth canal for the disturbance that produces new universes passes on the physical properties of the birthing universe as if it is vegetative
propagation. I liked this logic, and it didn’t hurt that the
fictional book's author is an astrophysicist.
book is wonderfully insightful and amazingly understandable. What
more could one ask for? To ask for more requires unheard of dimensions of
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