Book Review: The Lightness of Being: Mass, Ether, and the Unification of Forces by Frank Wilczek

Review by Elizabeth Quill

For a safari-like adventure into the world of physics, follow Wilczek’s lead. Quirky but knowledgeable, he explores the essence of the matter that makes up the universe — combining the enthusiasm of someone like Jeff Corwin with the thoughtfulness of a David Attenborough.

“I invite you to expand your view of reality,” Wilczek writes. “I invite you to expand the way you think.”

Over the past few decades, physicists’ ideas of reality have changed dramatically. Matter is like light, and mass comes from energy, Wilczek explains. He describes space as a dynamic “Grid” that hums as it creates and destroys particles. And he renames the standard model of particle physics the “Core” for his purposes, because, he says, it is not as boring as the name “standard model” makes it sound.

Tracing recent discoveries in particle physics, Wilczek explains why gravity is weak, and he foreshadows a grand unification theory. (Though he’ll have to wait longer than expected for any developments from the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator, near Geneva.)

Short chapters, bullet points and repetition of major themes make for easy reading, even as Wilczek skillfully sidesteps potential pitfalls. He skips over and later returns to topics including the masses of electrons and quarks and, of course, the unknowns of dark matter and dark energy — so these difficult topics don’t interrupt his tale.
Wilczek welcomes readers to join him on his journey, and his excitement makes the trip interesting, even when the waters get murky. —Elizabeth Quill

Basic Books, 2008, 270 p., $26.95.

Editor’s note: Frank Wilczek is on the board of trustees for the Society for Science & the Public, which publishes Science News.

THE LIGHTNESS OF BEING The Lightness of Being: Mass, Ether, and the Unification of Forces by Frank Wilczek