Monday, February 12, 2007

The Newtonian Legacy reviewed

I wasn't expecting to write about Nick's book just yet but starting it on Saturday evening I couldn't bring myself to shut down the computer. Not willing to go to sleep with so many unanswered questions I stayed up until late Saturday night reading through it, thoroughly engaged and amused.

So, it's a murder mystery set in and around historic Winchester in Southern England at the PHI Institute. This is perhaps the English, fictional equivalent of the Perimeter Institute or the IAS (have a look here for a very good read about the IAS). A post doc is murdered and the affairs that he was engaged in and the circumstances of his death become more and more intriguing throughout the story. A fellow postdoc who finds the body gets involved. Not only does he assist the police in uncovering what was going on but along the way he and his colleagues explain to the police officer involved (who happens to have an undergraduate degree in physics) what the people at the PHI Institute actually do and why they do it. It goes without saying that he also gets caught up in several steamy affairs, the local narcotics scene and arms traders - it comes with the job, you know!

As we follow the exploits of the wide array of characters (drug dealers, bohemian artists, hit men as well as the physicists and police), we discover about the Higgs mechanism (from the basic ideas through to composite Higgs models), possible alternative scenarios at the LHC, the interesting and highly strung politics of just about any physics institute, the basics of string theory, some cryptography and the history of alchemy. Along with this are the philosophical musings of the postdocs at the institute, all pretty accurately portrayed.

The idea of mixing in science with an engaging storyline for the general public has a long history and I thoroughly enjoyed the stories of Mr Tompkins from George Gamow when I started learning about quantum physics and special relativity.

The weighting of science to storyline is different in The Newtonian Legacy, but for an interested reader I think it gets the balance right. As long as they have a basic grounding in school physics and a keen mind they will come away, not fluent in the language of technicolour, but they should have a good idea of why we are all getting so excited about the LHC and understand more of what being a theoretical physicist is about. This book is a very enjoyable read, and it's free, so go take a look.

Anyway, I'm sure this took a lot of time and energy and I hope Nick won't be under too much more pressure if I suggest this would make a great series, I hope to see more from the PHI institute in the future.

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