The Matter of Everything review: A pacy look at 20th-century physics

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From the discovery of the first subatomic particle to the confirmation of the Higgs boson in 2012, Suzie Sheehy’s account of experiments that changed our world is detailed but lively



Humans



27 April 2022

View of CMS detector

The Large Hadron Collider at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland

Maximilien Brice/CERN

The Matter of Everything

Suzie Sheehy

Bloomsbury

 

IN 1930, Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli set out to solve a mystery. The variability of energy values for beta particles, defying the basic scientific principles of conservation of energy and momentum, had been confounding physicists since the turn of the century.

Pauli – a physicist so rigorous in his approach that he had been called “the scourge of God” – seemed well-placed to address it. And yet, when he put his mind to finding a theoretical solution for the problem of beta decay, Pauli created only further ambiguity.

He proposed the existence of an entirely new, chargeless and near-massless particle that would allow for energy and momentum to be conserved, but would be almost impossible to find. “I have done a terrible thing,” he wrote. “I have postulated a particle that cannot be detected.”

Pauli, a pioneer of quantum physics, is one of many names to cross the pages of The Matter of Everything, Suzie Sheehy’s lively account of “experiments that changed our world”. Through 12 significant discoveries over the course of the 20th century, Sheehy shows how physics transformed the world and our understanding of it – in many cases, as a direct result of the curiosity and dedication of individuals.

Sheehy is an experimental physicist in the field of accelerator physics, based at the University of Oxford and the University of Melbourne, Australia. Her own expertise makes The Matter of Everything a more technical book than the framing of 12 experiments might suggest, and certainly more so than the average popular science title, but it is nonetheless accessible to the lay reader and vividly described.

From experiments with cathode rays in a German lab in 1895, leading to the detection of X-rays and to the discovery of the first subatomic particle, to the confirmation of the Higgs boson in 2012, The Matter of Everything is an opportunity to learn not just about individual success stories, but the nature of physics itself.

Sheehy does well to set out the questions that these scientists wanted to answer and what lay at stake with their discoveries, on the macro level as well as the micro one, showing how physics not only helped us to understand the world, but shaped it. These early “firsts” came from small-scale experiments, with researchers operating their own equipment and even building it from scratch.

The Matter of Everything also highlights those whose contributions might have historically been overlooked, such as Lise Meitner, dubbed the “German Marie Curie” by Albert Einstein. Her work on nuclear fission went unacknowledged for some 50 years after her colleague Otto Hahn was solely awarded the Nobel prize in 1944.

The commitment and collaboration of physicists and engineers through the second world war showed what was possible – for good and evil. Sheehy describes how the development of the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki awakened a social conscience in the field, paving the way to the international cooperation we see today, such as on the Large Hadron Collider.

United behind a common goal, and with cross-government support, answers that had never before seemed possible suddenly appeared within grasp. To Sheehy, this is evidence of the potential for physics to overcome the challenges that face science and society now – from the nature of dark matter to tackling the climate crisis.

At the start of the 20th century, she points out, it was said that we knew everything there was to know about the universe; by the end of the century, the world had changed beyond recognition.

The terrible particles Pauli proposed – which he called neutrons, but we now know as neutrinos – were finally confirmed in 1956. His response was quietly triumphant: “Everything comes to him who knows how to wait.”

A sweeping but detailed and pacy account of 100 years of scientific advancement, The Matter of Everything has a cheering takeaway. What such leaps lie ahead? What questions seem intractable now that we won’t give a thought to in the future?

Sheehy mounts the case that – with persistence, curiosity and collaboration – we may yet overcome challenges that now seem impossible.

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