Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Physics Puzzlers

Scientists around the world are cheering. On July 4, two protons collided inside a 17-mile tunnel, part of the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva. The result: “credible” evidence that an elusive subatomic particle—a Higgs boson—actually exists. Scientists have long hypothesized the existence of this type of particle, which they believe endows the universe with mass. Media around the globe including The New York Times and BBC carried the remarkable story.

OK, I plead ignorance. What the heck is a Higgs boson? In Why does E=mc2? (and why should we care?) (2010), Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw set out to describe a complex theory "in the simplest way we can while at the same time revealing its profound beauty."  The first half of the book deals with the derivation of Einstein's famous equation; the second half with the equation's application to our current understanding of the universe.

Mysteries of the universe—or, more accurately, universes—are the subjects of John Barrow’s The Book of Universes: Exploring the Limits of the Cosmos (2011). Cosmologist and Cambridge professor, Barrow writes about different models of the universe. Beginning with Aristotle’s spheres, he moves on to "Swiss-cheese," " kinky," "singular," "anthropic," "turbulent," "quantum," "fake," "home-made," "mixmaster," "magnetic" and other intriguing configurations. It’s part history, part philosophy, part biography, punctuated with simple diagrams and quirky quotes, all of which combine for entertaining reading. There’s even a poem poking fun at the rivalry between exponents of the big bang and steady state theories.
Other good books for the math-and-science-minded are Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality (2004), which uses common analogies to illustrate complex scientific ideas, and Leonard Mlodinow’s The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives (2008), which explores the role chance plays in our lives.

On the lighter side, Colin Bruce, writing in the style of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, presents do-it-yourself conundrums in Conned Again, Watson: Cautionary Tales of Logic, Math, and Probability (2001). Solutions to twelve "cases" involve logic, probability, statistics, and game theory.  “Elementary?”  No way.

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