A friend recommended a new science book to me, The Particle at the End of the Universe, by Sean Carroll. I’m 50 pages in to it, but I’m so excited about what I’ve learned so far that I have to share.
Unlike Jim Holt, author of Why Does the World Exist?, which I’ve touched upon several times in this blog, Carroll is not a journalist with a knack for explaining science to the masses. He is a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology, and someone I would love to have had as a lab partner when I was in college. Not only can he speak plain English, but he can demystify complicated ideas.
For example, I’ve read countless explanations about how tiny bits of matter can be both a wave and a particle at the same time. My mind refuses to contemplate the notion, however. “Give me an example in real life,” it insists. No book on science that I’ve read has ever managed it. The writers eventually throw up their hands and say the phenomenon is “mysterious.” Till now, I agreed. But Carroll gives his audience an inkling into this puzzle. I’m going to share it, not by using his example, but creating one of my own. If I fall on my face, I don’t want to take Carroll down with me. So here goes:
Imagine a cloth made of sand. You can pull it, lift it, twist it like an ordinary cloth but the substance is fluid. The sand can move around, clump or leave blank spaces, for example. When it clumps, it’s still the same cloth but the little pile becomes a particle with different properties – width, height, mass — from the other parts of the cloth where the sand is smooth. That’s how a tiny bit of matter can be a wave and a particle at the same time, all of it being nothing but energy.
No doubt my analogy is crude and imperfect but it helps my brain get around the unimaginable. If I’ve got it right, the concept isn’t mysterious but simple. If I’ve got it right, Carroll’s hard cover book is worth every penny I paid for it.
(Courtesy of Barne&Noble.com)