Fundamentals book cover


Frank Wilczek

Penguin Press, $26

As the story is generally told, science began when some deep thinkers in ancient Greece chose to turn down the popular mythological explanations for different natural phenomena. Those early theorists looked for rational explanations for things like thunderstorms, rather than attributing them to Zeus tossing temper tantrums in the kind of thunderbolts.

But early Greek scientific philosophy was not merely about replacing myth with logic. For the Greeks, discussing truth did not mean just creating a logical reason for each natural phenomenon in isolation– it was also about seeking a deep, meaningful explanation for everything. Which suggested determining basic concepts that discussed a variety of phenomena, encompassing the totality of physical truth. That’s the essence of science.

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Science today is significantly advanced, accurate and intricate than it remained in ancient times. All of today’s advanced knowledge of physical truth is also rooted in a couple of fundamental concepts, which physics Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek attempts to recognize and discuss in his newest book, Basics: Ten Keys to Truth

Wilczek’s basics are framed as the “basic lessons we can learn from the study of the real world,” as expressed by “the central messages of modern physics.” Each chapter evaluates one of the “broad concepts” he considers as essential. He describes their function in contemporary physical understanding and relates them to “how we people suit the big picture.”

(He does not imply “born once again” in a spiritual sense, but rather as an expression of the requirement to understand that the view of the world based on ordinary human experience does not adhere to the underlying reality that contemporary science reveals.

What there is, Wilczek avers, includes a lot of area and lots of time. Area, for instance, is vast no matter which method we look– compared to deep space, people are small; compared to the atom, individuals are big. Similarly, deep space has existed for a long time and has an even longer future ahead of it. Additional active ingredients of this large universe ultimately include a handful of subatomic particles, or more precisely, quantum fields responsible for those particles. And their habits is governed by a small set of physical laws, as codified in the formulas of basic relativity and physicists’ “basic design” of particles and forces. Those ingredients, though restricted in type, exist in plentiful amounts. And the supply of energy in the universes needed to prepare those components into intricate things is tremendous: A single star (the sun) emits countless times more than the overall annual energy usage of the Earth’s whole population.

Wilczek describes how all those components came to be in the type we see today in his “Beginnings and ends” chapters. A key part of the story is the emergence of intricacy in spite of the simplicity of the fundamentals– the extremely few ingredients governed by very few laws.

Another crucial concept is Wilczek’s last fundamental, the physicist Niels Bohr’s concept of complementarity. Comprehending the world requires the mind-expanding awareness that one thing saw “from various point of views, can appear to have really various and even inconsistent properties.” Which is why “the world is easy and complicated, sensible and weird, lawful and chaotic.”

Basics is an appealing account of the history of mankind’s understanding of truth, told by one of the crucial factors to current parts of that story. Wilczek’s grasp on the physics he relates is thorough and authoritative; he communicates technicalities with a rare mix of accuracy and availability.

Such quibbles aside, Wilczek offers an extremely clear guide to the state of physical understanding in the early 21 st century, much in the spirit of the sort of explanation that the ancient Greeks desired.

” We do understand lots of elements of the physical world extremely deeply,” Wilczek composes.

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