Review of The Lightness of Being: Mass, Ether, and the Unification of Forces

Frank Wilczek was a Physics Nobel prizewinner in 2004 (the Gross-Politzer-Wilczek award for “asymptotic freedom”). He is now at M.I.T.

The author explains the strange title, The Lightness of Being (by Frank Wilczek, Basic Books, New York, 2008, 270 pp.) on page ix. But that’s not important; the subtitle is the thing: Mass, Ether, and the Unification of Forces.

Mass is no longer a basic building block. Instead, we recast Albert Einstein’s E = mc2 into m = E/c2 (called Einstein’s second law). Mass is generated via suitably energetic processes. Since c, the speed of light, is a large number (300 million meters/second), so that c2 = 9 × 1016, a huge amount of energy E yields only a small amount of mass. Never mind, however; Wilczek is only colliding electron, positron, and proton projectiles in giant atom-smashers such as the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva. The relatively slow-speed survivors weigh more than the original projectiles. But this minuscule process will never replenish the hydrogen that is used up as the Sun and other stars burn.

The “ether” has been resuscitated by Wilczek. (I prefer the “aether” spelling.) I hasten to interject that the claim that Einstein rejected the aether is completely false. It is a claim promoted by the “establishment.” See “Ether and the Theory of Relativity,” by Einstein, an address given on 5 May 1920 at the Univ. of Leiden, and published by Methuen & Co., London, in 1922. Here it is:

The original aether was the transmitter of electromagnetic waves, but the Michelson-Morley experiment could find no evidence for an aether. However, Wilczek’s aether is quite different from the classical Maxwell-type aether. The new aether is a space-filling medium that is teeming with extremely small virtual particles that come and go, as revealed by quantum mathematics.

Wilczek has a great deal to say about the ether, but he doesn’t like the word because “Ether is the old concept … but it bears the stigma of dead ideas and lacks several of the new ones … I will use the word Grid for the primary world-stuff” (p. 74). To me, it is unfortunate that Wilczek has invented a new word to replace the old aether.

The last part of the subtitle, the Unification of Forces, refers to the four forces: gravitation, electromagnetic, the strong force, and the weak force. These forces have been around for many years. Why are physicists now anxious to “unify” them? Because it turns out that the debris of high-energy collisions consists of a zoo of particles that are related to each other, such as:

Quarks and gluons are the players in the strong force. To get a handle on these “objects,” I assume they have a diameter of, very approximately, 10−18 meter. (An atom has a diameter of 10−10 m.) There are three distinct flavors of Uquarks – up, charm, and top – and each has one unit of color charge (red, white, or blue). In addition, there are three flavors of D quarks – down, strange, and bottom, also each in three colors. Weak force (interaction) processes can transform the various flavors into one another. Color gluons change the color charge of a quark, but not its flavor. Quarks are not observed directly. Gluons are any of a set of eight particles that mediate the strong force. Gluons respond to (and change) color charges rather than electric charges.

The text appears in three sections:

Part 1: The Origin of Mass (145 pp.) This is a mixture of history, science, and philosophy. The main thesis here is that mass is generated originally via m = E/c2. These 145 pages, over half the book, can be viewed as a separate stand-alone booklet. It is an informative, interesting commentary on the subject. Wilczek’s style is unique – sort of talking to the reader as they are huddled around a coffee table. A very informal, cheerful manner of writing.

Part 2: The Feebleness of Gravity (18 pp.) The discussion here concerns the feebleness of gravity as a force.

Part 3: Is Beauty Truth? (36 pp.) Here the particles and interactions are organized into a unified theory. Unfortunately, the most important illustration in the book, Fig. 17-1, is a bare-bones skeleton, with symbols undefined in the figure or its caption (and this is generally true for the other figures in this book). Only an expert can read this illustration; the intelligent layperson, the intended audience for the book, will be completely befuddled. But let’s hear what Wilczek has to say:

“Figure 17.1 presents the organization of particles as we find them – the so-called standard model … Standard modelis a grotesquely modest name for one of humankind’s greatest achievements. The standard model summarizes, in remarkably compact form, almost everything we know about the fundamental laws of physics. All the phenomena of nuclear physics, chemistry, materials science, and electronic engineering – it’s all there … this figure comes with definite algorithms for unfolding symbols into a model of the physical world. It allows you to make surprising predictions and to design, for example, exotic lasers, nuclear reactors, or ultrafast ultrasmall computer memories with confidence. … I will henceforth refer to the standard model as the Core theory.  …  It would be hard to exaggerate the scope, power, precision, and proven accuracy of the Core. … The Core is close to Nature’s last word. It will provide the core of our fundamental description of the physical world for a long time – possibly forever.”

In other words, the Core theory reveals how the Universe is organized. It is not, however, what we expect. As we go to smaller and smaller dimensions, from molecules to atoms to atomic nuclei, we expect the Universe to become simpler and simpler. Instead, the quark and gluon Core is more complicated than ever, and Wilczek convincingly tells us that this is really how it is.

Consider the following thought experiment: We take a meter stick and cut it in half, over-and-over again. After 60 cuts, we get to quark and gluon dimensions. Perhaps we have to continue cutting in half 60 more times, until we get a dimension of 10−36 m (the Planck length), before the basic, simple fabric of the Universe is revealed. If so, Wilczek’s Core model may, indeed, last forever because nothing more expensive than the Large Hadron Collider may ever be built.

The book ends with a Glossary (22 pp.) and Notes (16 pp.). These are like cake and ice cream at the end of a good lunch. The author probably envisions the reader as repeatedly turning to the back of the book to get the meaning of a word, or an explanatory note. Well, it doesn’t work that way. The 38 pages in question should have been incorporated into the text. It is fun to steal a bit of dessert, and add it to the main course, when nobody is looking.

In August 2007, Dr. Wilczek wrote to me “At the moment, I’m heavily engaged in writing a popular book, The Lightness of Being, … that will emphasize some of these [ether] issues.” Did he succeed? In my opinion, “Yes.” The purpose of the book is not to teach the intricacies of the Core model to the intelligent layperson; that would be like requiring him/her to learn a new language. The goal is to inform the reader that a Core theory exists, to describe its main features, and that it is “close to Nature’s last word.”


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