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.
Einstein meets Ovid in Tonelli’s compelling account of how the universe was born and how it has since evolved. Grounded in theoretical science but sustained by artistic fervor, this account not only illuminates the precepts of modern cosmology for nonspecialists, but also endows those precepts with rare imaginative power. Though Tonelli incorporates technical terms (leptons, neutrinos, muons) in his narrative, interested nonspecialists will understand—even delight in—a story that begins in the mysterious triggering of the big bang and culminates in the emergence of a universe filled with galaxies where stellar fire warms planets (like ours) capable of sustaining intelligent life. Readers will thrill at the opportunity to accompany a world-class physicist to the frontiers of cosmological science, there to contemplate the unfolding of the universe and to gauge the dazzling new technologies enabling scientists to scrutinize that unfolding. Others have told this story, of course, but no one has so enriched the science of this cosmic drama with such meaningful forays into mythology, scripture, music, and history. Thus, while teaching readers about the scientific discoveries of modern cosmology, Tonelli also compellingly explores the primal, prescientific human emotions—wonder, anxiety, hope—that have animated the researchers who have made those discoveries. A science book that will matter deeply to nonscientists.