The Infinity Puzzle

The average citizen, playing with his or her iPhone, spares not a moment’s thought for the scientists who made it possible. In a rare instance, usage of the quantum-based toy might summon up an image of Steve Jobs. Fair enough, but Jobs was no scientist. If pushed to nominate an actual scientist whose work might have led to the development of this pocket-sized computer more powerful than a room-sized mainframe of past decades, Joe or Jane Touchscreen might come up with the name of the lone scientist most people know: Stephen Hawking. Of course, they’d be totally offbase, given that Hawking’s studies in cosmology and astrophysics played little part in Apple’s creations. Finally, a tiny, tiny minority of users could probably name with some accuracy Einstein or Richard Feynman, two researchers with abnormally high profiles.

But the names of Julian Schwinger, John Bardeen, Gerard t’Hooft, Willis Lamb, John Ward, James Bjorken and Abdus Salam, along with a host of other significant geniuses, will never fall from the lips of ninety-nine percent of the population. The men and women whose discoveries made possible our current techno-landscape remain largely unknown and unacknowledged.

Happily, a worthy remedy to this shameful gap in our communal knowledge comes in Frank Close’s The Infinity Puzzle. Written with pellucid prose, a keen eye for salient details, a talent for the illuminating metaphor, a passion for the topic, and a novelist’s gift for portraiture, narrative, and suspense, this book plumbs the rich roots of our current scientific understanding of how the universe works, down where it all gets fuzzy and weird. Close’s title refers to the fact that when various early theories that would coalesce into QED — Quantum Electrodynamics — began to be developed they often led to outrageous results involving impossible values of infinity. How the bugaboo was resolved, and how a deep understanding of the forces and particles that constitute creation finally solidified, is the odyssey he intends to chart. It will span decades and every continent.

His prologue concentrates on a moment in 1971, when Gerard t’Hooft delivered an oral presentation which, as Close will later characterize the moment, shifted 2000 years of science onto a different track, from a focus on particles to one on forces. After a vivid account of this seminal moment, Close jumps back to 1947, when postwar physics was in turmoil. He will proceed decade by decade, with useful summaries at regular intervals, laying down the experiments, false paths, triumphs, near-misses and paradigm shifts that have led to our present conception of the universe. Along the way, he carefully constructs humanist and often humorous biographies for the major players, showing us the different styles of each scientist and the spectrum of emotions and desires that propelled their intellectual achievements. Close does not omit his own experiences, telling how his early years as a professional were marked by confusion and despair at the seeming intractability of the problems.

Close has a fine way with colorful yet precise language. “Bosons, by contrast, are like penguins, where large numbers cooperate like a colony.” His organizational scheme always proceeds in rigorous steplike fashion, introducing concepts just as they are needed, and building ladders to higher and higher plateaus of understanding. In his chapter titled “The Big Machine,” he casts his knowing eye on the politics behind science, specifically the various campaigns to convince governments to invest in enormous particle accelerators. And he acknowledges the dicey nature of reconstructing even the well-documented past: “However, so singular was the event that it has gained a life from the many retellings over the years. Ask people who were at SLAC [Stanford Linear Accelerator Center] in 1968 for their memories [of Feynman’s visit], and the result is a set of mutually incompatible histories.”

But Chapter 9 alone is going to insure this book a wide audience, given that it’s a timely history of the Higgs Boson, that enigmatic and elusive particle currently grabbing headlines. Close demystifies the science and humanizes Peter Higgs and his co-discoverers who often go unremarked.

The epilogue looks ahead to the next twenty or thirty years of physics, affirming that humanity’s long quest to unriddle existence might be close to a finish. “Only nature now knows. Soon humans will too.” If this bold assertion at the end of Close’s dynamic survey does not quicken your heart, then you have read a far different book than I!

The Speculator

Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review.  He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.