Friday, 27 October 2017

The Greatest Story Ever Told So Far by Lawrence Krauss

In the Greatest Story Ever Told So Far, physicist Lawrence Krauss wishes to recount the history of particle physics from its very beginning to pretty much today. The clear narrative tool it wishes to use in order to get there is to draw on the analogy with The Greatest Story Ever Told, as in - given Krauss is a famous atheist - point out the shortcomings of a book that assumes everything there is to know has already been identified and cannot be changed, and compare that with the scientific endeavours that always, and by definition, have to reinvent themselves when facing the truth. Unlike that bible,
We cannot understand that hidden world [of particle physics] with intuitions based solely on direct sensation. That is the story I want to tell here.
We might prefer to deny this uncomfortable, inconvenient reality, this impersonal, apparently random universe, but if we view it in another context, all of this need not be depressing. A universe without purpose, which is the way it is as far as I can tell, is far more exciting than one designed just for us because it means that the possibilities of existence are so much more diverse and far ranging. It is perfectly reasonable to claim that religion, in the Western world, may be the mother of science. But as any parent knows, children rarely grow up to be models of their parents.
Thus begins a journey that takes us from the humble beginnings of Newton, Faraday and Maxwell to the Higgs boson and the Large Hadron Collider. As the book's title gives away, there is on ongoing theme here of patting oneself on the back throughout. Krauss is telling us, again and again, that this story of particle physics he is telling us is humanity's greatest intellectual achievement thus far. Which is a fine claim to make, but do allow me to indulge in cultural relativism for a minute and ask if this is truly the case? Or at least, can we genuinely, quantitatively, argue that of all humanity's intellectual achievements, this particular one is the bestest?
Perhaps; I am definitely not qualified to offer an opinion on the matter. Nor do I wholeheartedly subscribe to liberal relativism. I do, however, appreciate humility; and given Krauss himself is a physicist, I am sort of repelled by this exercise of patting oneself at the back that is this book. Sure, much praise is due, but personally I prefer the type of praise that comes from the outside.
Praise such as yours truly's. I am quite a fan of Lawrence Krauss; I have attended live presentations of his, and even had the pleasure of chatting with him in person and the privilege of having our photo taken together (it wasn't a selfie!). So yes, I do praise Krauss for his efforts in helping this great achievement of humanity's and for doing his best to explain it to the laymen.
However... Ultimately, and like many before him, I argue The Greatest Story Ever Told So Far fails in being able to popularise particle physics for the masses. Unless you are much smarter than I am, or able to dedicate much more concentration that I could afford, I would put my money on you losing Krauss somewhere along the way. As hard as he tries, the task of explaining particle physics to a person as ignorant as yours truly proved to be significantly above this particular book. Maybe one day the field will be able to field a Richard  Dawkins grade populiser, but till then I (we) am pretty much where I (we) was before this book came along, at least when it comes to my (our?) understanding of the field.
Overall: I truly appreciate the approach of explaining physics through its history. It creates a narrative and it helps establish the layer upon layer of discoveries. However, as glorious as this book’s ambition may be, it is still a failure.
2 out of 5 crabs.

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