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Reviews: The Superorganism

SciAm reviews Quantum Ten: A Story of Passion, Tragedy, Ambition, and Science and The Lightness of Being: Mass, Ether, and the Unification of Forces

Quantum Ten: A Story of Passion, Tragedy, Ambition, and Science
by Sheilla Jones. Oxford University Press, 2008

In 1927 ten leading physicists met in Brussels to formalize the new science of quantum physics, establishing a set of rules for the microscopic world that was completely incompatible with the existing set for the macroscopic world—and creating a paradox scientists are still trying to resolve. Sheilla Jones, a journalist with a degree in physics, captures the scientific and the human aspects of this meeting. The cast: Albert Einstein, celebrity and lone wolf; Niels Bohr, father figure getting left behind by the new mathematical physics; Paul Ehrenfest, passionate friend to both Einstein and Bohr; Max Born, anxious hypochondriac; Erwin Schrödinger, enthusiastic womanizer; Wolfgang Pauli, clown with a dark side; Louis de Broglie, French aristocrat; Werner Heisenberg, intensely ambitious young man; Paul Dirac, Englishman of few words; and Pascual Jordan, uninvited Aryan nationalist. “This was never a team effort,” Jones writes. “Sometimes, two or three would collaborate for a while, but mostly they were rivals who wanted their particular version of the new science to prevail.... A quantum revolution that stalled in a pressure cooker of tension, tragedy and betrayal.”

The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies
by Bert Hölldobler and E. O. Wilson. W. W. Norton, 2008

The superorganism is a social colony of individuals who, through a sophisticated division of labor, a highly effective communications network and a process of self-organization, form a tightly connected community that functions as a single organism. Fewer than two dozen superorganism species are known to exist: social insects—the colonial bees, wasps, ants and termites—and humans. Fascinating in their own right, superorganisms also offer a window through which we can witness the progression of life from simple to complex forms. Harvard University professor E. O. Wilson and German biologist Bert Höll­dob­ler won a Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for The Ants. The current book, they say, is not intended to be as comprehensive but “to present the rich and diverse natural history facts that illustrate superorganismic traits in insect societies.” Nevertheless, the book is monumental in every sense, with the same attention to detail and the same elegant style as the earlier volume. More than 100 color photographs and another 100 or so black-and-white drawings make it beautiful as well.

The Lightness of Being: Mass, Ether, and the Unification of Forces
by Frank Wilczek. Basic Books, 2008

Frank Wilczek, winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics, unwraps exciting new ideas, among them that matter is built from almost weightless units and that space is a dynamic “Grid,” a modern ether. He contends, with great wit and style, that we are tantalizingly close to unifying the fundamental forces of nature:

“The striking similarities among our fundamental theories of superficially very different forces hint at the possibility of a synthesis, in which all of them will be seen as different aspects of a more encompassing structure. Their different symmetries might be sub-symmetries of a larger master symmetry. Extra symmetry allows the equations to be rotated into themselves in even more ways…. Thus it opens new possibilities for making connections among patterns that previously seemed unrelated. If our fundamental equations describe partial patterns that we can make more symmetric, by making additions, we’re tempted to think that maybe they really are just facets of the larger, unified structure. Anton Chekhov famously advised, ‘If in Act One there is a rifle hanging over the mantelpiece, it must have been fired by the fifth act.’ Now I’ve hung the rifle of unification.”

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