Guido Tonelli, a particle physicist and a central figure in the discovery of the Higgs boson (the “God particle”), reveals the story of our genesis―from the origins of the universe to the emergence of life on Earth, to the birth of human language with its power to describe the world.
Mr. Tonelli writes lyrically ... The style, tone and difficulty-level of the book are what one might expect in a lecture aimed at a general audience. All that’s missing are the PowerPoint slides. There are interesting digressions into other cultural areas—Greek myth, Renaissance art and so on—sometimes to illustrate important technical ideas such as symmetry, or merely as pleasant asides. Word origins are another humanistic sweetener ... What researchers hope for is the unexpected. What funders prefer is to know the outcome in advance. It’s a paradox that top-level scientists like Mr. Tonelli negotiate with aplomb.
With all that going for it, it’s a shame that some passages of this book are like wading through particle soup. Quarks and leptons, positrons and hadrons, gluons and muons, Tonelli chucks them all in, sometimes with a carefree disregard for the general reader’s understanding. There are parts that, frankly, I didn’t get. Perhaps you’ll do better ... All is forgiven, though, when Tonelli leaps — often in one paragraph — from minutiae to cosmic grandeur. He explains superbly how minuscule variations in the density of that first fleck of a universe are now written across the immensity of space, to be read by us in background radiation and in the patterns of the galaxies themselves. The heavy elements of which we are made were forged in those stars, and he takes an infectious joy in the implications ... He’s honest about science’s shortcomings too ... that’s the key difference between the Bible’s Genesis and science’s version. One is finished. The other is a work in progress, and is all the more exciting for that. Whether or not you buy every detail of the Tonelli version of events, his flawed but hugely impressive book gives a grand vision of the marvels we’ve discovered, and the immensity of what we still don’t understand. Maybe he should have called it Revelations instead.
Tonelli’s descriptions of what amounts to his workplace are disappointingly fleeting in these pages; even the lay reader will be able to glean that the discovery of the Higgs boson is a major scientific event worthy of a long, detailed chronicle of its own. This isn’t that book. Instead, Tonelli maps those picoseconds of the universe’s birth onto, as the title suggests, the creation account in the Book of Genesis. The rationale behind this is impenetrable and maddening; there is no connection whatsoever between the three-thousand-year-old mythology of primitive tribesmen and the science of cosmology and particle physics, and any attempt to invoke one—especially by a scientist, for the love of Mike—is only counterproductively encouraging to the science-denying religious fundamentalists who already have way, way too much encouragement in the 21st century. The organizing conceit aside, however, Tonelli’s book is such a lively introduction to the current theorizing about the first 10-to-the-negative-30th seconds goings-on in the universe that you might actually find yourself understanding some of it. Talk about something out of nothing.