The Matter of Everything overview: A pacy have a look at Twentieth-century physics

From the invention of the primary subatomic particle to the affirmation of the Higgs boson in 2012, Suzie Sheehy’s account of experiments that modified our world is detailed however full of life


27 April 2022

View of CMS detector

The Large Hadron Collider at CERN close to Geneva, Switzerland

Maximilien Brice/CERN

The Matter of Everything

Suzie Sheehy



IN 1930, Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli got down to remedy a thriller. The variability of vitality values for beta particles, defying the essential scientific ideas of conservation of vitality and momentum, had been confounding physicists because the flip of the century.

Pauli – a physicist so rigorous in his strategy that he had been known as “the scourge of God” – appeared well-placed to deal with it. And but, when he put his thoughts to discovering a theoretical answer for the issue of beta decay, Pauli created solely additional ambiguity.

He proposed the existence of a wholly new, chargeless and near-massless particle that will permit for vitality and momentum to be conserved, however could be nearly inconceivable to seek out. “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 in every of many names to cross the pages of The Matter of Everything, Suzie Sheehy’s full of life account of “experiments that changed our world”. Through 12 important discoveries over the course of the Twentieth century, Sheehy reveals how physics reworked the world and our understanding of it – in lots of circumstances, as a direct results of the curiosity and dedication of people.

Sheehy is an experimental physicist within the subject of accelerator physics, primarily based on the University of Oxford and the University of Melbourne, Australia. Her personal experience makes The Matter of Everything a extra technical ebook than the framing of 12 experiments would possibly counsel, and definitely extra so than the typical standard science title, however it’s nonetheless accessible to the lay reader and vividly described.

From experiments with cathode rays in a German lab in 1895, resulting in the detection of X-rays and to the invention of the primary subatomic particle, to the affirmation of the Higgs boson in 2012, The Matter of Everything is a chance to study not nearly particular person success tales, however the nature of physics itself.

Sheehy does effectively to set out the questions that these scientists needed to reply and what lay at stake with their discoveries, on the macro stage in addition to the micro one, displaying how physics not solely helped us to know the world, however formed it. These early “firsts” got here from small-scale experiments, with researchers working their very own tools and even constructing it from scratch.

The Matter of Everything additionally highlights these whose contributions might need traditionally been missed, similar to 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 dedication and collaboration of physicists and engineers by way of the second world struggle confirmed what was attainable – for good and evil. Sheehy describes how the event of the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki woke up a social conscience within the subject, paving the way in which to the worldwide cooperation we see right now, similar to on the Large Hadron Collider.

United behind a standard purpose, and with cross-government assist, solutions that had by no means earlier than appeared attainable instantly appeared inside grasp. To Sheehy, that is proof of the potential for physics to beat the challenges that face science and society now – from the character of darkish matter to tackling the local weather disaster.

At the beginning of the Twentieth century, she factors out, it was stated that we knew the whole lot there was to know in regards to the universe; by the tip of the century, the world had modified past recognition.

The horrible particles Pauli proposed – which he known as neutrons, however we now know as neutrinos – had been lastly confirmed in 1956. His response was quietly triumphant: “Everything comes to him who knows how to wait.”

A sweeping however detailed and pacy account of 100 years of scientific development, The Matter of Everything has a cheering takeaway. What such leaps lie forward? What questions appear intractable now that we gained’t give a thought to sooner or later?

Sheehy mounts the case that – with persistence, curiosity and collaboration – we could but overcome challenges that now appear inconceivable.

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