This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.
This is Jon Butterworth's second book on physics. I have not read his other book. The author is a Professor of Physics at University College London and also works at CERN on the ATLAS particle detector experiment. This was one of two large hadron collider experiments which were instrumental in discovering the long-sought-after Higgs Boson.
I have to say up-front that I was very disappointed in this book. For me, it confused things far more than it clarified them, which is unfortunate. I'm not a physicist by any stretch of the imagination, and I have only a lay-person's understanding of the topics covered here, but I have read extensively on these subjects, so I know my way around them in general terms. I was hoping for more clarity or new learning here, and I felt I got neither. The author used the metaphor of exploring oceans and islands to pursue the investigation of forms of energy and sub-atomic particles, but it didn't work and it felt much more like a shallow tourist trip where it's all about superficiality and gewgaws, rather than an actual exploratory voyage during which we really learn something about the venue we're visiting.
But before I really get started on content, I find myself once more having to say something about formatting. This book is laid out as a typical academic-style text, with very wide margins, lots of white space, and lots of extra pages up front that strictly aren't necessary. The publisher determines how a book should look, and supplicants to the publishing world are required to conform whether the antiquated rules make sense in a modern world or not.
For me, the bottom line is that we cannot afford to sacrifice so many trees in a world where climate change is running rampant and may be irreversible. We need trees alive, not crushed and sparsely printed on. Naturally in an ebook, this is irrelevant except in that bulkier books eat up more energy in transmission over the Internet, but for a large print run, this slaughter of forests has to stop, or at least be contained. Wasting so much paper is unacceptable.
This book had an extensive contents which served no purpose at all because it contained no links to the actual chapters nor did the chapters contain a reverse link to get back to the contents. Neither was there an index in the back. I assume there was no index because ebooks are searchable and therefore an index and a contents are really irrelevant. Who reads a contents page? Maybe some do, but I never do. I don't read prologues, forewords, introductions, or prefaces, either. If you want people to know what's in the book, make the back cover blurb serve a real purpose and put a brief contents list on that cover!
The real problem here though was the margins which ate up (by my estimation) at least a quarter of each page in white space. The chapter title pages wasted more, and each book section wasted yet more by having its own title page. I'm sure authors and publishers think this makes a book look pretty but you know what? Trees are far prettier than any book I've ever seen or heard of. The book could probably have been two hundred pages instead of three hundred, had more judicious margins and a slightly wiser use of overall space been employed. I can't sanction that kind of wastefulness in formatting.
Another issue was that while the publisher very wisely did not publish this using Amazon's crappy Kindle format, which mangles anything but the plainest of text, the book was published in a format which lent itself poorly to being read on a smart phone, because every page insists upon presenting itself as a complete page. Like an atom, it's not easily broken down into smaller component parts and the entire page is too small, especially with those margins, to be read comfortably on a phone screen. It's really designed for a tablet computer which is far less easy to tote around than is my phone.
On the phone, the reader is constantly having to stretch the page to fill the screen. Shrinking those large margins made it intelligible, but that also rendered it 'unswipeable': you can't swipe to the next page, so you have to reduce the page back to original size - sometimes requiring two shrinking efforts to achieve this properly - swipe it, enlarge it, read it, shrink it, rinse and repeat. It makes for an irritating reading experience at best.
The real problem or joy of any book though is the content (as opposed to contents!). Does it do the job? For me this did not because there were so many confusing metaphors here that it really muddied the water rather than clarified it. It was like comparing the pristine Inverness river of the thirteen century with the disgustingly polluted Thames of the Victorian era.
As I mentioned, the metaphor of sea-travel and island visits is employed here, and the book even includes maps of them of these locations, but this struck me as completely fatuous and an entirely wrong-headed approach. Illustrations of some of the concepts he was discussing would definitely have clarified things, but none of those are to be found anywhere. Instead, we have fake maps of fictional seas and islands that really have nothing whatsoever to do with the subject under discussion. To me this was ill-advised.
It didn't help that the author continually jumped around like he was in Brownian motion between one topic an another. First we sail to this island, then we sail back to where we started, then we take a train journey, then we re-board the ship and sail to another island, oh look at that island over there, but here we are at this island instead. It made for a nonsensical text in which the reader struggled to follow the topic instead of being helped along by a favorable breeze as it were.
I can't test the whole document since I don't have the text, but out of curiosity I typed in this one tiny section which struck me as being obtuse:
The sprays, or jets, of hadrons will be collimated roughly in the direction of the initial quark and antiquark. The energies and directions of the initial quark and antiquark can be calculated in QCD, and the calculation agrees well with measurements of the jets.This scored marginally over a forty four in Flesch reading ease, where a score for comfortable reading would be sixty or seventy. Low scores are bad! The Flesch-Kincaid grade level was 12.5 which indicates a person who has started college (beyond twelfth grade in the US means graduated high-school - or post-GCE-A-level student in Britain). Although this was hardly a random sample, I believe it's representative since it isn't atypical of how this book is written, so be warned that the reading level isn't exactly aimed at the general populace! I think this is a flaw perhaps induced by having only scientist colleagues read the text? I don't know.
By the time this book reached chapter 19, roughly halfway through, and very accurately titled 'The Weak Force', and went rambling on about W and Z particles, once again without really explaining anything, but instead comparing the whole thing to an airline, I had pretty much lost all interest in this book. This chapter seemed to be one of the most confusing and therefore the weakest in the chapter list so it was aptly named, but maybe this was simply because I was so tired of these meaningless meandering and overblown metaphors that I really had no heart left in it at all, and I decided my time would be better spent elsewhere.
Even when we got down to the actual topic under discussion, the text really didn't do very much to educate or illuminate. As I mentioned, it was like a tourist version where we see the sights, but learn little to nothing of local color and history. We got a scientist's name tossed in here and there, but nothing in depth about the subject before we were whisked-off to the next. Every topic got the same short shrift no matter how easy or hard a topic it might have been to explain.
For example at one point (page 127 of the book, page 145 of the screen page count, which is an indicator of how many fluff pages there were at the start of this book), there was a brief discussion of the elements and how well-bound (or otherwise) they are, with iron standing out as tightly-wrapped no-nonsense kind of a fellow, but nowhere in this section was there any sort of discussion as to exactly why iron, of all the elements, is like this! There were hints all around it but nothing as solid as iron itself is.
Why is iron such a problem in star formation and development such that when a star starts making iron in its belly, it's doomed? Iron is like the legendary black spot in pirate lore, predicting your demise if you get it, but we learn nothing of exactly why this is so. We're told only that this is why iron is so common. I had expected, in a book like this, that there would be something to learn here, but it seems that either there isn't or the author thinks it not worth sharing, and we were never party to which of those options it was. To me this was a starting point: begin with trusty old iron, talk about the elements, and use those discussions of elements and their properties to launch the other topics covered here.
Another such issue was when the text started in on the color of quarks. Color when used in this sense has nothing whatsoever to do with what you see on the TV or movie screen, or in images on your camera. It's an idiosyncrasy of science which Richard Feynman detested. Red, green and blue are used to describe various quarks, but their opposites are not cyan, magenta and yellow! Instead, they're woodenly named: anti-red, anti-green, and anti-blue! There was an opportunity for humor there which was missed a in a community which seems fine with quarks named strange and charm! In physics, the color of a sub-atomic particle has to do with the charge of the particle, not with color, but beyond that I have no idea what it really means and this book utterly fails to explain it, or even broach it. This to me was emblematic of the overall skimpy approach employed here. I'm surprised the ship didn't run aground in such shallow seas.
The fact that topics got short shrift - or more à propos, set adrift, as opposed to being anchored solidly in something people have an instinctive grasp of, really sums up the problem: I expected a lot more from this than I got, and it was a truly disappointing experience. I wish the author all the best in his career, both academic and literary, but I cannot recommend this book.