Fine Structure

Wilczek's The Lightness of Being

As I mentioned before, I went to see Frank Wilczek speak about his new book at the Commonwealth Club two weeks ago with my friend Jamison. The Commonwealth club is in a pretty nice location at 595 Market in downtown San Francisco (although I was completely confused by their side entrance while construction was going on out front) and looks like it occupies most of the second floor, which has absolutely huge ceilings in corner occupied by the "Blue Room". Stacks of war and peace-size books titled "Minutes from Committee Meetings - 1983" and their brethren line the walls in the waiting room. I have no idea how they might retrieve the larger books from the higher shelves without bringing in heavy machinery. There were no more than 50 people in attendance that day but apparently they hold the more popular talks at bigger venues elsewhere in the city. Nothing against Wilczek, of course, but I don't think there was much publicity surrounding this event.

Wilczek gave a presentation mostly for the non-physicists in the audience which was quite appropriate considering that many of the attendees were the 50+ crowd. His presenting style is fairly straightforward for someone who's first job isn't presenting; he definitely knows what he's talking about, but his sentences are produced in fits and starts. He covered some basics like protons and quarks, and quickly moved to describing what the LHC does (he seems especially fond of the term that he uses to describe the LHC - an 'ultrastroboscopic nanomicroscope'). He even managed to work in AlpineKat's LHC Rap video, which he promptly rocked out to. Seriously though, if there's one thing you should know about Wilczek other than the fact that he's a smart physicist, it's that he can appreciate humor as well. The Commonwealth Club records all their talks and places them online, I've added the talk I attended below:

Of course, Wilczek was here for a reason. He's promoting his new book, The Lightness of Being, which was published in August this year. I picked one up (and had it signed, of course!) afterwards. I spoke with him briefly about some of the questions I ran up against when writing Parton Distribution Functions and he gave me some good direction. He's a much more personable guy than his speaking style lends you to believe.

I want to cover a couple of the topics he mentions in TLB with more detail (in other posts) but I feel compelled to make a comparison of content his talk beforehand. Wilczek's presentation gives a good overview of the first five chapters of TLB, which is to say that if you've read almost any popular science book on fundamental physics in the last 20 years, you're probably quite familiar with it's contents. Chapter six starts getting into more complicated concepts, like Wilczek's own asymptotic freedom (or, as he prefers it now, Charge Without Charge), but the book remains readable for the most part without requiring much knowledge of the complicated mathematics behind the concepts.

Even Wilczek can only go so far though, and many later chapters involve fairly complicated stuff which he can't quite push himself to explain via equations. I agree with his goal but I'm not sure the content in the later chapters was polished to the point that it didn't need equations. You shouldn't knock the content though, I learned a number of fascinating physics phenomena conceptually (effects of virtual particles and W and Z boson interactions inside a superconductor, just to name two of the most interesting examples) that were mostly new to me but that Wilczek's text had me understand immediately. It's not the first conceptual physics book you should read (he assumes you're familiar with Lorentz contraction, amongst other things) but a really solid bridge between those basic popular physics books and keeping up with what's actually going on in modern fundamental physics. I highly recommend both The Lightness of Being and seeing Wilczek speak in person.


I just started reading this, i hope it is as good as you say

December 6, 2008
7:48 PM

From Monica