Review of Atom Land: A Guided Tour Through the Strange and Impossibly Small World of Particle Physics by

Book cover for Atom Land: A Guided Tour Through the Strange and Impossibly Small World of Particle Physics

Kara is still split on this one, folks. Atom Land: A Guided Tour Through the Strange (And Impossibly Small) World of Particle Physics tries to teach us about … well, particle physics. Specifically, Jon Butterworth takes us on a tour of the different particles in the Standard Model of physics, explains the three fundamental forces that interact with them, and then expands our horizons by briefly touching on the frontiers of physics research. The subject matter is fascinating, and Butterworth’s presentation of it is generally pretty interesting. Yet the book itself never quite gels for me. Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the eARC.

The title of this book is literally the metaphor Butterworth uses throughout: he pitches this as a journey through the land of particle physics, starting at the Isle of Leptons and taking us all the way to the high-energy land of Bosonia on the eastern edge of the map. I’m so ambivalent about this metaphor. I think I mostly hate it, because it sounds so contrived. But there are parts that managed to get to me—and the little maps at the start of each section are cute! So your mileage may vary, and maybe this is the metaphor that finally helps you make sense of particle physics. Probably not though.

Butterworth promises early on that he won’t throw any equations at us. This is a fairly standard boilerplate promise in the popular physics book game these days. Atom Land adheres to the letter of this promise but not, I submit, it spirit: there are a few times when Butterworth basically writes in words the equivalent of an equation, and if that isn’t splitting hairs, I don’t know what is. I also don’t agree with this received wisdom that equations should be avoided at all costs. Sometimes equations are elegant, beautiful ways of demonstrating physics. You don’t need to understand or be able to manipulate them to appreciate how they bring together, for example, various forces. And in attempting to avoid the use of equations, Butterworth, like so many other authors of these books, ends up going through contortions or explaining things in a tortured way that ultimately make less sense (in my opinion).

Indeed, one of my major reservations about Atom Land is simply that I’m having a hard time pinning down the intended audience. The first part of the book spends a long time explaining how modern quantum physics understands the nature of a “particle” and wave-particle duality. Yet it isn’t long before Butterworth is throwing around terms that a lot of newbies won’t understand or be able to grasp the way he’s explaining them. Combined with the utter dearth of images and figures, aside from the maps that preface each section, and this makes for some uneven reading.

I will give Atom Land this bit of praise, though: Butterworth spends a lot of time explaining the weak force, and I definitely understand it a lot better than I did before reading this! In particular, he covers concepts like chirality and helicity, which either I’ve never seen mentioned before in any physics books, or I must have totally forgotten about them. Again, the level of his explanations occasionally seems uneven in complexity, but I think I got the gist of it. And it led to some fascinating insights into the weak force, the nature of antimatter, and why symmetry is so important to physics. Moreover, Butterworth often touches on the possibility of finding a “theory of everything” and makes important points each time why that isn’t really the right way to look at physics and science.

It occurred to me while I was reading that it must take a lot of confidence to write a popular physics book these days. There just seems to be so many out there—you must really think you’ve got what it takes, or got something others don’t, for your book to do something the other books haven’t. So, good on Butterworth for taking that leap and writing this book. It’s a decent book. But all it really did was make me want to re-read Knocking on Heaven’s Door, by Lisa Randall, which had an excellent and more concise explanation of the Standard Model—complete with a diagram!

Atom Land stays true to its conceit the entire way through, and Butterworth attempts to explain the fundamental forces of our universe in clear terms. I think he mostly succeeds, but his style doesn’t quite work for me, and there are parts of the book that seem inconsistent in tone and difficulty level. It’s all right, but it’s messy in places. Then again, I guess that’s physics these days.

Engagement

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