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A wide-ranging history offers a sumptuous panorama of modern physics

The Greatest Story Ever Told—So Far

Lawrence M. Krauss
Simon & Schuster
2017
336 pp.
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Humans are innately curious. How else would you explain the fact that from the earliest days of civilization, we have been driven to contemplate and probe questions that are not essential for survival?

The awe that our ancient ancestors felt when confronted with what appeared to be an incomprehensibly complex universe initially inspired various spiritual quests and explanations that relied on “higher powers.” All of this changed with the ascent of science.

In The Greatest Story Ever Told—So Far, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss beautifully explains how our refusal to believe that there are unknowable cosmic truths has rewarded humanity with brilliantly precise answers to puzzles previously obscured by the fog of dogmatic assurance. When we cast off faith in favor of the scientific method, deep questions such as “What is the nature of space and time?” and “What is matter?” suddenly became answerable and, perhaps more important, verifiable.

SHAUNL/ISTOCKPHOTO

Blending rigorous research with engaging anecdotes, Lawrence Krauss reveals what we know—and what we don’t—about the world around us.

The scope of this book is truly impressive. It covers topics ranging from Galileo’s law of inertia to Newton’s theory of gravitation and Faraday’s experiments in electricity and magnetism. It delves into Einstein’s theories of relativity (special and general), the revolution introduced by quantum mechanics, and the ensuing concept of gauge symmetry. It touches on the current Standard Model of particle physics, the recent discovery of the Higgs boson, and the inspiring (but still unproven) ideas associated with cosmic inflation. Although novices may find this breadth somewhat intimidating, those familiar with at least some of these topics will greatly enjoy the sumptuous panoramic view.

Throughout the book, Krauss repeatedly highlights two crucial elements of our current understanding of physics: (i) the incredible insights that have led to the concept of the unification of the fundamental forces and (ii) the seminal role of symmetry, from which the laws of nature ultimately spring. In support of the former, he cites Isaac Newton’s remarkable recognition that the same force that makes apples fall on Earth also holds planets in their orbits; James Clerk Maxwell’s demonstration that electricity and magnetism represent two sides of the same coin; and the unification of electromagnetism with the weak nuclear force by physicists Steven Weinberg, Sheldon Glashow, and Abdus Salam.

Krauss demonstrates the breathtaking powers of symmetry through colorful stories about the discovery of never-before-seen particles. He also clearly elucidates how the elegant framework known as gauge symmetry lies at the heart of all the forces that govern dynamical behavior in the universe.

Symmetry leads Krauss naturally to another fundamental physics concept—spontaneous symmetry breaking. Imagine a group of people sitting at a round dinner table. Initially the left and right sides are indistinguishable. However, as soon as someone reaches for the bread plate, the symmetry is spontaneously broken. Krauss describes how the idea of the spontaneous symmetry breaking that separated the weak and the electromagnetic forces led Peter Higgs to predict the existence of the particle that now bears his name. (It would take experimentalists more than four decades to confirm the existence of the Higgs boson particle.)

Krauss’s exhilarating tour through the physics of the subatomic world reveals two other important lessons about our quest to decipher the universe. First, even our understanding of the fundamental building blocks of reality can change. Here, he recounts how protons and neutrons, which appeared to be the fundamental constituents of matter a mere century ago, turned out to be made up of more elusive elementary particles. Second, and most important, he reveals how, in answering many questions about the laws that govern the cosmos, we have uncovered a new set of even deeper questions, the answers to which we don’t yet know.

Empiricist philosopher John Locke was onto something when he concluded that even with all the progress we humans have made, for the most part, we must lead our lives lacking knowledge. This is not a pessimistic view. On the contrary, it ensures that some of the most exciting discoveries are still to be made.

About the author

The reviewer is an astrophysicist and the author of Brilliant Blunders (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2013).