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“Fundamentals” shows how reality is constructed from some basic ingredients

Frank Wilczek
Penguin Press, $ 26

As history often tells, science began when some profound thinkers of ancient Greece decided to reject popular mythological explanations of various natural phenomena. Those early philosophers sought logical explanations for things like thunderstorms, rather than attributing them to Zeus firing lightning bolts.

But the first Greek scientific philosophy was not limited to replacing myth with logic. For the Greeks, explaining reality did not only mean devising in isolation a logical reason for each natural phenomenon; it was also a matter of seeking a deep and coherent explanation for everything. And that meant identifying fundamental principles that explained a diversity of phenomena, encompassing the totality of physical reality. That is the essence of science.

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Science today is much more advanced, accurate, and complex than it once was. However, all current sophisticated knowledge of physical reality is also rooted in some fundamental principles, which Nobel laureate in physics Frank Wilczek tries to identify and explain in his latest book, Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality.

Wilczek's fundamentals are framed as "the fundamental lessons we can learn from the study of the physical world," as expressed by "the central messages of modern physics." Each chapter values ​​one of the “broad principles” it considers fundamental. He explains their role in modern physical understanding and relates them to "how we humans fit into the big picture."

Divide your account into two main parts: “What’s There” and “Beginnings and Ends”. It describes the fundamentals it identifies from the perspective of two themes: “abundance” and “born again”. (It does not mean "being born again" in a religious sense, but as an expression of the need to realize that the worldview based on ordinary human experience does not fit the underlying reality revealed by modern science. As adults, we must " to be born again ", without preconceptions formed in childhood, to appreciate the real foundations of reality.)

What is there, Wilczek warns, includes a lot of space and a lot of time. Space, for example, is vast no matter how we look at it; compared to the universe, people are small; compared to the atom, people are huge. Similarly, the universe has been around for a long time and has an even longer future ahead of it. The additional ingredients of this vast cosmos ultimately consist of a handful of subatomic particles, or more precisely, quantum fields responsible for those particles. And their behavior is governed by a small set of physical laws, as codified in the equations of general relativity and in the "standard model" of particles and forces of physicists. These ingredients, although limited in their kind, exist in abundant quantities. And the supply of energy in the cosmos needed to cook those ingredients into complex things is immense: a single star (the sun) emits thousands of times more than the total annual energy consumption of the entire population of the Earth.

Wilczek describes how all of these ingredients came to be in the form we see today in his chapters “Principles and Ends”. A key part of the story is the emergence of complexity despite the simplicity of the basics: the few ingredients governed by very few laws. It turns out that small differences in the distribution of ingredients lead to a diversity of structure and composition at all scales of the cosmos. Gas clouds in space that differ slightly, for example, "can produce systems of stars and planets that differ drastically."

Another key idea is Wilczek's fundamental principle, the complementarity principle of the physicist Niels Bohr. Understanding the world requires understanding that a thing seen "from different perspectives may seem to have very different or even contradictory properties." And that is why "the world is simple and complex, logical and strange, lawful and chaotic."

Fundamentals is an engaging account of the history of understanding the reality of humanity, told by one of the major contributors to recent parts of that history. Wilczek’s understanding of the physics he relates is comprehensive and authoritative; conveys technicalities with a rare combination of accuracy and accessibility. However, it is a bit sketchy about its history. It gives an incorrect date for the Geiger-Marsden experiment that led to the discovery of the atomic nucleus, for example. Moreover, Einstein did not base his original proposal of photons on the work of Max Planck and Wolfgang Pauli did not say that the neutrino could not be observed in the letter in which he originally proposed it.

Wilczek offers an exceptionally clear guide to the state of physical knowledge in the early 21st century, very much in the spirit of the kind of explanations the ancient Greeks wanted. Of course, as Wilczek points out, the story is not nearly over. Maybe within a century or so, someone else will have to take on the task again.

“We understand many aspects of the physical world very deeply,” Wilczek writes. However, "our understanding of the physical world continues to grow and change. It is a living being."

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