Book Review: From X-Rays to Quarks

From X-rays to Quarks: Modern Physicists and Their Discoveries by Emilio Segre

In my review of the chronological prequel* to From X-Rays to Quarks (hereafter FXQ) entitled From Falling Bodies to Radio Waves (hereafter FFR) I mentioned that it was almost less a history of physics than a history of physicists. The same holds, somewhat, for FXQ in that while it is nominally about the history of physics in the 20th century (or, strictly speaking, about 1895 to 1983), it is more a survey of the great number of physicists who labored in this period.

This has the advantage of adding a great bit of color to the history of physics, where rather than A discovered this then B discovered that you see the rich interactions and complex series of events that led to discovery. It seems like everybody was talking to everybody else, sharing ideas, meeting at conferences, and collaborating. The 20th century was the period in the history of science where physics went from being readily identified with the major works of a few men like Newton to being a much larger, more diffuse enterprise. While there were still giants in this period like Rutherford, Einstein, and Fermi, it becomes increasingly difficult to identify even any subfield with the work of one person, particularly after the Second World War.

Narrative problems necessarily arise because of the great profusion of physics, though. While the early 20th century has the discovery of relativity and quantum mechanics acting as the two main structural pillars, the later periods are consequently rushed with less of a binding arc. Segre focuses on particle physics, so other subjects like cosmology, astronomy, solid-state physics, and electronics are squeezed into short sections near the end. Segre can’t be faulted through for history turning out the way it did, though it makes the last chapter or so a real whirlwind tour.

I think it’s best to think of FFR and FXQ as two volumes of one book, starting from the early experimental and theoretical work of Galileo and going up until the ever larger energies of particle colliders in the mid-’80s (pushed even higher at the present time with the LHC with the International Linear Collider on the drawing board). You’ll meet and get to know a great assortment of characters, each with different interests, motivations, and talents. The ideas and experiments are not by any means excluded either, so it’s not just a series of quick biographical sketches. For the interested layperson, these two books are the go-to place for a comprehensive overview of the history of physics, from the 1580s to the 1980s, Galileo to CERN.

Included at the end of the book are a series of fairly short (one to two page) mathematical appendices describing some of the key physical problems covered, like Planck’s blackbody law or Bohr’s hydrogen atom.

* I say chronological sequel since the events and people of FFR occurred before those of FXQ, but it was published four years after FXQ. However, I think it’s better to read them in the order that history happened rather than the order Segre happened to write them.

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