Ten Keys to Reality

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Another book about physics for the layperson. It's not bad. The author, Frank Wilczek, is a Nobel Prize winner in physics, so I'm relatively sure his explication of science here is solid.

His mission here is broad, and somewhat daunting: an overview of the "fundamental lessons we can learn from the study of the physical world." So in a relatively short book, it's a whirlwind tour of cosmology, particle physics, relativity, etc.

Books like this (I've noticed) tend to shy away from math. It's apparently an ironclad law in the publishing world that each equation in a book decreases the readership by some non-trivial amount. Also, no graphs. (Well, there's one here on page 3: World GDP per capita, from 1500-2000.) And no diagrams, just a few basic tables.

Instead, there's a lot (a lot) of what I call "poetic language". (In fact, there's an actual poem in the book's dedication, to his wife Betsy.) Sometimes this can be beautifully illuminating. Example from page 106: "Atoms sing songs that bare their souls, in light." Which is a neat way of expressing the more pedestrian fact that electrons jumping between energy levels in an atom emit photons of characteristic energy revealing the atom's structural nature.

Wilczek does as good a job as I've seen trying to explain particle/field duality. E.g., how sometimes it makes sense to think of light as a wiggling electomagnetic field, as described by Maxwell's equations. But other times it makes sense to think of light as quantized particles (again, photons), little shiny balls moving fast on their geodesics. Both views are true, but it's very difficult to hold both in your head simultaneously.