Atom Land Makes Physics Accessible to all

By using lengthy equations to describe phenomena like star implosions and cosmological expansion, physics describes the way in which the universe functions. Such laws and theories are developed through a long process of difficult calculations, often in the manner of trial and error. The whirlwind of numbers and free body diagrams can be daunting, often discouraging people from pursuing the subject. It is for this reason that CERN physicist Dr. Jon Butterworth’s book Atom Land: A Guided Tour Through the Strange (and Impossibly Small) World of Particle Physics–released in March of 2018– is a uniquely exceptional journey into the world of elementary particle physics. 

Atom Land | Photo courtesy of Barnes & Noble

Atom Land is written as a story, explaining physics in commonly understood analogies: electromagnetism is a highway system and the weak nuclear force is a railway. Such definitions make for a proper simplification of even the most complicated concepts. 

Dr. Butterworth begins by explaining the basic structure of an atom. The reader is in a boat at Port Electron with a crew heading on a journey through “Atom Land.” The waves of the ocean and the trajectory of a bullet are used in conjunction to define properties of waves and particles and even particle-wave duality. After venturing past the waves and bullets of Port Electron, the reader and their crew venture into smaller lands, to eventually go past the Isle of Quarks and into the very edge of Antimatter.

Regularly, particle physics is dismissed as too hard to learn, much less implement. Quarks,  a type of fundamental particles, and electrons behave in unfamiliar ways, stumping even the most capable of physicists. In order to garner an in-depth understanding of such concepts, one must first understand the math and physics behind it. For this, a textbook, research paper, or even an advanced science book with diagrams defining the relationship between equations and theories is necessary. 

A situation where math meets physics to create a daunting chalk board | Photo courtesy of University of Pennsylvania

However, every expert starts as a beginner, making a proper introduction to the basic concepts equally as important. This is where  Butterworth’s Atom Land comes along. There are a plethora of physics resources approaching the theories in a technical sense, but a lack of resources using generally understandable explanations truly capturing the magnificence of it all. 

The idea of the book is sound, physics told in a story. Butterworth’s execution was promising but lacked substance and depth due to complete avoidance of mathematics. While it is important to grasp the concepts, physics is fundamentally applied mathematics. The book would have been much better had Butterworth found some way to incorporate equations in his explanations. 

Physics is the language of the universe. Through it, people have conceptually gone beyond the edge of our own universe. The theories and equations are magnificent in their detail and relevance because math is more than numbers, it is the universe’s way of revealing its innermost secrets. Despite its flaws, Atom Land still reminds us that behind all the equations and the theories, lies a story with plot twists and tragedies. It proves that physics is more approachable than people give it credit for. 

The book is available for purchase at all book providers for 14.95 dollars paperback and 19.95 dollars hardcover. 

Written by Roaa Alkhawaja

Co-Editor in Chief and Senior, Ro'aa Alkhawaja, loves herself a good week of reading, baking, tea-drinking, and eating more Nutella sandwiches than should be humanly possible.

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