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Physics Revisited

The Birth of Particle Physics. Laurie M. Brown and Lillian Hoddeson, eds. Cambridge University Press, New York, 1986. 448 pp., illus. $18.95 PB. In most instances one would welcome a new edition of a symposium held nearly seven years ago about as much as one would welcome a subscription to a newspaper seven years old. This book, however, is a valuable exception. The symposium, which was held at the Fermi Laboratory in May of 1980, focused on the history of modern particle physics and such a his

By | January 26, 1987

The Birth of Particle Physics. Laurie M. Brown and Lillian Hoddeson, eds. Cambridge University Press, New York, 1986. 448 pp., illus. $18.95 PB.

In most instances one would welcome a new edition of a symposium held nearly seven years ago about as much as one would welcome a subscription to a newspaper seven years old. This book, however, is a valuable exception. The symposium, which was held at the Fermi Laboratory in May of 1980, focused on the history of modern particle physics and such a history can never really be dated. The book, edited by physicists Laurie Brown and Lillian Hoddeson, contains addresses delivered at the symposium and some of the colloquy that followed the formal talks.

I found the contents truly fascinating. Five chapters contain the presentations and discussions of some 40 particle physicists and historians and philosophers of science from around the world. The topics include early x-ray discoveries, quantum field theory, the development of meson physics in Japan, and much more.

In addition to being a valuable information source on particle physics, this book provides a deeper look at the more general scientific process. I was left with the impression that mixing professional scientists and professional philosophers in such a symposium doesn't quite work. As one of the physicist participants noted "When I hear words in a physics meeting about ontology, it makes me cringe." Note also the following lunar observation by the Japanese historian and philosopher of science Takehiko Takabayasi: "Thus Taketanu formulated the three stage theory … according to which our recognition of nature proceeds by repeated cycles of phenomenological, substantialistic, and essentiallistic stages, corresponding to the Hegelian triad of thesis-antithesis-synthesis." Fortunately there is very little of this in the book.

The work of the 1930s and 1940s marvelously illustrates the symbiosis between theory and experiment. Time and again experiments are seen to drive theory. Without hints, clues and puzzles from experiments, theorists can spin their wheels almost indefinitely. The reverse effect—that of theory on experiment—is more subtle.

Many very good physicists were at this symposium. My teacher Julian Schwinger was there and his two contributions are worth the whole price of the book. In them he notes that when he was 16 and still a high school student in New York City he wrote, but did not publish, a paper on quantum electrodynamics that contained what later became known as the "interaction representation"—a very important tool in the quantum theory of fields. I used to fantasize that I would be shipwrecked on an island with Schwinger and to pass the time he would tell me everything he knew about physics. I am now convinced that I would have expired long before he could finish.

There is much of value to be found in The Birth of Particle Physics. I encourage readers with some background in physics to seek and gain the insight I did from reading it.

Bernstein, who writes for The New Yorker, is an adjunct professor
of physics at The Rockefeller University, New York, NY 10021.

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