Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Book Review: The Infinity Puzzle

Close, F. E. (2011). The infinity puzzle. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The Infinity Puzzle by Frank Close (Oxford) is a history of the development of Quantum Field Theory from the late 1940's to the 1970's.  The book is exceptionally well written and the author has done dozens (at least) of interviews in order to tell the story of how some the components of QFT came into being. Prof Close in several instances offers his own take who gets credit for what and to what extent history sees the evolution of the subject in the same way. For example Ron Shaw and John Ward are singled out as having been sorely neglected in the distributing of awards (Shaw for his own version of Yang-Mills, and Ward for his contribution to the electro-weak theory).

The author does not give any indication of what background the prospective reader should have, but it is clear to me that a familiarity with the details of doing calculations in QFT is more than just helpful. This, technically speaking, is not a book about science but rather about how the ideas that make up QFT were discovered/invented. In my opinion it would help if the reader has some previous experience with the Lagrangian formulation of field theories, the computational details of renormalization, and some idea of how SU(2) and SU(3) come into play.

On the other hand, the chapters on the Higgs mechanism, the creation of electro-weak theory, and asymptotic freedom are likely to be of considerable interest to historians as well as physicists. Close interviewed all the many people associated with the development of the Higgs mechanism, and tells the interesting story of the Harvard/Princeton back-and-forth that lead to the creation of asymptotic freedom.

To give some perspective, two earlier books came to mind as I was reading The Infinity Puzzle: The Second Creation (Robert Crease and Charles Mann), and Constructing Quarks (Andrew Pickering). Of these two the former has the best claim to being accessible to the general reader (it also covers a longer period of time), while the latter is rather more technical on the science material, while not actually being as complete on the history of the ideas. Unlike Close, who is a physicist and who did research in the field, these other authors are historians/sociologists.

The best recommendation to give a book is to say that I found it worth investing in a personal copy.

Submitted by Bob Kariotis

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