All Things Great and Small

A rendering of the collision between two neutron stars, observed by researchers working with the LIGO and Virgo gravitational wave detectors, August 2017

Priyamvada Natarajan in The New York Review of Books:

The physicist Richard Feynman, in a lecture to undergraduates at the California Institute of Technology in 1961, posed a question and then answered it:

If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms.

The profound insight that the entire material world can be described succinctly as composed of fundamental building blocks is at the foundation of all theories about the nature of matter, from ancient inquiries into its properties, to medieval and early modern attempts to transmute base metals into precious gold, to modern efforts to understand atomic structure, harness the power of the atom with fission and fusion, and create artificial materials in laboratories.

Three new books examine our current understanding of matter’s origin and qualities, and chronicle our continuing quest to probe beyond atoms. Neutron Stars: The Quest to Understand the Zombies of the Cosmos by Katia Moskvitch, a science writer, explores recent research into the super-dense remains of stars ten times more massive than our Sun, whose precise material composition has eluded us. The astrophysicist Katie Mack’s The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) shows how the contents of our universe—matter and energy—determine its destiny and, ultimately, its demise. In Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality, the physicist Frank Wilczek, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2004, addresses new discoveries that are leading to a reassessment of the atomic hypothesis. He explains how notions of matter have changed over the past decades from “all things are made of atoms” to “all things are made of elementary particles”—the expanding list of which includes quarks, gluons, muons, and the recently discovered Higgs boson.

More here.