3D view of an event showing characteristics expected from the decay of the Higgs boson Credit: Cern

When science seems like magic

Eight stories show how recondite physics can be life-enhancing entertainment
March 28, 2020
Science sometimes resembles magic. Not in the sense of influencing events by trickery, but by correctly predicting aspects of the universe before they have been observed. In The Magicians, the accomplished science writer Marcus Chown speculates on how gifted theoreticians can become sorcerers. 

To illustrate what Chown describes as “the central miracle of science,” he tells eight stories from the world of physics. Two of the best describe how theoreticians in the 1930s predicted sub-atomic particles that experiments had not previously identified such as the neutrino (proposed by the Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli) and the anti-particle of the electron, initially conceived by quantum physicist Paul Dirac. Experimenters later observed these particles with precisely their predicted properties.   

Chown also gives lively accounts of two of the greatest triumphs of physics in the past decade—the discovery of the Higgs particle in 2012 and the first direct observation of gravitational waves in 2016. Neither was a surprise as they had been crucial to physicists’ understanding of the universe for decades. The Higgs particle and gravitational waves are simply consequences of the patterns underlying the fundamental workings of the universe, patterns that mathematics makes precise and universal. Opinions differ on the underlying role of mathematics in all this, as Chown explains in a coda. 

All the stories in The Magicians have been told in many a popular science book. One might wish that Chown had chosen some less familiar examples. He could profitably have included the sensational verification in 1833 of the Irish mathematician William Rowan Hamilton’s prediction that special crystals can bend a light beam into a cone of light.  

But this is nitpicking. The real pleasure of Chown’s book is to see how recondite physics can be fascinating, life-enhancing entertainment. It’s magic. 

The Magicians: Great Minds and the Central Miracle of Science  by Marcus Chown (Faber, £12.99)