I finished reading Deep Down Things by Bruce Schumm a few days ago. This is the book about particle physics I mentioned awhile back. I majored in math in college and took a year of introductory physics and astronomy, so the particle physics background, is there, elementary though it is. This book gave me a chance to expand on it, and my mind is now so blown that I’m going to have to reread parts of the book and take in other physics materials to absorb everything.
Schumm explains a lot of material in the book in order to introduce the Standard Model of particle physics. He does a great job at reminding the reader of things that were first brought up many pages back, which is a good thing because the field has a lot of terms that can be confusing at times. The book begins by explaining the forces of nature, then moves on to relativity and quantum physics and the history of these fields before introducing subatomic particles. I really wish I had paid more attention to the chapter on subatomic particles–not that I didn’t pay attention, but the book exists because of those particles, and I was already familiar with some of them. Others flew out of my memory a few minutes after I read them. Maybe I should have gone back to the chart at the end of that chapter.
You probably already know that math is extremely important in physics; physics, after all, is mostly math, and you’d think I would have done better in my physics classes for this reason. I probably did so badly in physics because the emphasis was on knowing a bunch of formulas and not on math, or at least the abstract math that I love, particularly algebra. Abstract algebra, specifically Lie groups (pronounced “Lee” after discoverer Sophus Lie), has applications in particle physics, and the next chapter devotes itself to explaining Lie groups from the very beginning. By “very beginning”, I mean that Schumm assumes the reader has no clue what a group is, which is one of the first things an abstract algebra student learns. Schumm even explains complex numbers when the need arises, thus assuming even less mathematical background. Mathematical terms that the layman probably wouldn’t know are uncommon; I found myself filling in the blanks when he explained things. “Oh, they’re isomorphic,” I’d think to myself when he made the case for two groups being the same. The casual reader doesn’t need to know that term to understand, so leaving it out is perfectly fine. Even though I have no experience with Lie groups, I still found myself spoiling things for myself while Schumm explained them in a nontechnical way. This isn’t a bad thing, just a comment for those going into this book with knowledge of abstract algebra.
Schumm also has a good sense of humor that finds it way into the text. I found myself turning to the notes in the back every other note or so because every now and then they’d have little to do with the text at hand. The notes would recommend a carousel in Santa Cruz (where he teaches) when he explained a physics concept or tell a story about a physicist. He’d crack a joke now and then in the text, too, and we all know that humor is the best teacher.
If you have any interest in particle physics, read this book, but be warned: It won’t be a speedy read unless you’re already familiar with particle physics. I probably should have read it more slowly than I did to absorb everything, but even at the rate that I did read it, it still took an entire evening to read some chapters. That’s not because they were poorly written but because the material wouldn’t stick to my brain. Reviewing the material is definitely in order.