A Particle Life: Does It Matter?

SHELDON Glashow, Professor of Physics at Harvard and Nobel Laureate, is the latest in a long line of contemporary scientists to try to popularize his trade with a book aimed at the general public.Interactions is intended to be scientific autobiography which will allow the reader to share in "the search for the ultimate portrait of the universe, as seen through the eyes of one of its searchers."


By Sheldon L. Glashow with Ben

Bova Warner Books, 347 pp., $19.95

Glashow, whose expertise lies in elementary particle physics--the study of both the basic elements of matter and the forces which hold them together--encounters a problem which other popularizers of biology, astronomy and evolution have not: the inherent abstractness of particle physics. Whereas most people wonder at the changing phases of the moon or the workings of their own bodies, few wonder how an atom is constructed, simply becuase they have never seen an atom.


Forced to concoct a drama, Glashow chooses as his story the constant intersections of theory and observation that led to the currently held beliefs about the structure of the atom. Just as in The Double Helix, another popular scientific work about an abstract theory, the scientist's own life takes on great importance. Interactions goes beyond simply imparting Glashow's knowledge of elementary particle physics (the realm of quarks, strangeness, charm and color)in an effort to present what he terms a "scientific autobiography."

Unfortunately, Glashow's attempt fails.

BY far the most stimulating parts of the book are those that deal directly with elementary-particle theory and its historical development. The history of nuclear physics in the 20th century begins in 1911 when Ernest Rutherford disproved, through relatively simple experiments, the dominant scientific theories which viewed the atom as a "large, soft and spongy pudding with electrons embedded in it." Rutherford concluded instead that there was a hard and heavy center to the atom, around which electrons orbit.

This discovery eventually led to the simple model of the atom which is still taught in high school physics courses: the nucleus consists of positively charged protons and uncharged neutrons, around which negatively charged electrons orbit. Yet the continuous discovery of new particles, such as the unstable muon, challenged this simple theory. In addition, this theory raised further theoretical questions: how was the nucleus held together? Why did radioactive decay exist?

Questions such as these challenged much of the physics community until Glashow's so-called "standard theory" was accepted in the 1970s. Glashow takes the reader through the questions which increasingly precise empirical data posed, the theories constructed to explained these observations (which were often the results of faulty experiments), the shortcomings of these theories in the face of general scientific principles or new data, and so on, in an endless cycle.

In this process lies the key to the scientific method: the interplay of fact and theory. Yet Interactions is poorly organized, and what should be an exciting progression of thought instead often confronts the reader as a muddle.

Glashow finally begins to provide a clear history in his discussion of Murray Gell-Mann's conjecture that the fundamental elements underlying all of the mysterious particles are quarks. It is not surprising that Glashow is at his best here. Quarks are the jumping board for much of his brilliant theoretical synthesis of the strong and weak nuclear forces and electromagnetism. This is his turf: it was Glashow's prediction that a fourth, "charm" quark existed, which resolved many of the difficulties of Gell-Mann's theory.

THE hidden (and most interesting) theme which ties the scientific portions of Interactions together is the quest for theories which simply and elegantly explain observations of nature. Glashow refers to this as "the rock-bottom faith of the physicist in the underlying simplicity of nature's laws."

Glashow attempts to make this theme explicit by looking into the minds of the scientists who have contributed the significant theoretical advances which constitute our present knowledge. Glashow indeed promises us just such a study in the book's subtitle, "A Journey Through the Mind of a Particle Physicist and the Matter of this World."

But the promise goes unfulfilled. The the autobiographical portions of this book are shallow and seemingly irrelevant to the development of Glashow's thought.