Thursday, February 23, 2017

Book Review: “The Particle Zoo” by Gavin Hesketh

The Particle Zoo: The Search for the Fundamental Nature of Reality
By Gavin Hesketh
Quercus (1 Sept. 2016)

The first word in Gavin Hesketh’s book The Particle Zoo is “Beauty.” I read the word, closed the book, and didn’t reopen it for several months. Having just myself finished writing a book about the role of beauty in theoretical physics, it was the absolutely last thing I wanted to hear about.

I finally gave Hesketh’s book a second chance and took it along on a recent flight. Turned out once I passed the somewhat nauseating sales pitch in the beginning, the content considerably improved.

Hesketh provides a readable and accessible no-nonsense introduction to the standard model and quantum field theory. He explains everything as well as possible without using equations.

The author is an experimentalist and part of the LHC’s ATLAS collaboration. The Particle Zoo also has a few paragraphs about how it is to work in such large collaborations. Personally, I found this the most interesting part of the book. Hesketh also does a great job to describe how the various types of particle detectors work.

Had the book ended here, it would have been a well-done job. But Hesketh goes on to elaborate on physics beyond the standard model. And there he’s clearly out of his water.

Problems start when he begins laying out the shortcomings of the standard model, leaving the reader with the impression that it’s non-renormalizable. I suspect (or hope) he wasn’t referring to non-renormalizability but maybe Landau poles or the non-convergence of the perturbative expansion, but the explanation is murky.

Murky is bad, but wrong is worse. And wrong follows. Fore example, to generate excitement for new physics, Hesketh writes:
“Some theories suggest that antimatter responds to gravity in a different way: matter and antimatter may repel each other… [W]hile this is a strange idea, so far it is one that we cannot rule out.”
I do not know of any consistent theory that suggests antimatter responds differently to gravity than matter, and I say that as one of the three theorists on the planet who have worked on antigravity. I have no idea what Hesketh is referring to in this paragraph.

It does not help that “The Particle Zoo” does not have any references. I understand that a popular science book isn’t a review article, but I would expect that a scientist at least quotes sources for historical facts and quotations, which isn’t the case.

He then confuses a “Theory of Everything” with quantum gravity, and about supersymmetry (SuSy) he writes:
“[I]f SuSy is possible and it makes everything much neater, it really should exist. Otherwise it seems that nature has apparently gone out of its way to avoid it, making the equations uglier at the same time, and we would have to explain why that is.”
Which is a statement that should be embarrassing for any scientist to make.

Hesketh’s attitude to supersymmetry is however somewhat schizophrenic because he later writes that:
“[T]his is really why SuSy has lived for so long: whenever an experiment finds no signs of the super-particles, it is possible merely to adjust some of these free parameters so that these super-particles must be just a little bit heavier, just a little bit further out of reach. By never being specific, it is never wrong.”
Only to then reassure the reader
“SuSy may end up as another beautiful theory destroyed by an ugly fact, and we should find out in the next years.”
I am left to wonder which fact he thinks will destroy a theory that he just told us is never wrong.

Up to this point I might have blamed the inaccuracies on an editor, but then Hesketh goes on to explain the (ADD model of) large extra dimensions and claims that it solves the hierarchy problem. This isn’t so – the model reformulates one hierarchy (the weakness of gravity) as another hierarchy (extra dimensions much larger than the Planck length) and hence doesn’t solve the problem. I am not sure whether he is being intentionally misleading or really didn’t understand this, but either way, it’s wrong.

Hesketh furthermore states that if there were such large extra dimensions the LHC might produce microscopic black holes – but he doesn’t mention with a single word that not the faintest evidence for this has been found.

When it comes to dark matter, he waves away the possibility that the observations are due to a modification of gravity with the magic word “Bullet Cluster” – a distortion of facts about which I have previously complained. I am afraid he actually might not know any better since this myth has been so widely spread, but if he doesn’t care to look at the subject he shouldn’t write a book about it. To round things up, Hesketh misspells “Noether” as “Nöther,” though I am willing to believe that this egg was laid by someone else.

In summary, the first two thirds of the book about the standard model, quantum field theory, and particle detectors are recommendable. But when it comes to new physics the author doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Update April 7th 2017: Most of these bummers have been fixed in the paperback edition.


  1. Supersymmetry, non-renormalizability and perturbative non-convergence in a book without any equations? Doesn't this set the action principle and mathematical symmetry back to the old high-school notions of pretty snowflakes and rotating circles?

  2. SuSy demands calculated half-life proton decay. Super-K, 3.34×10^33 loose protons in water, sees no decays. DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevD.95.012004, arXiv:1610.03597.

    2-Cyano-D)3-trishomocubane has 8 homochiral centers/11 skeletal atoms, calculated geometric chiral divergence CHI = 0.884725/1.000000 (phenylalanine is 0.058600), prolate symmetric top rotor. Vacuum supersonic expand to ~1 kelvin rotational temperature molecular beam, chirped-pulse FT microwave spectrometer. If enantiomers’ rotational spectra are not exactly identical and exactly superposed, there exists chiral anisotropic vacuum background...healing 50 years of SUSY, baryogenesis, dark matter, gravitation.
    ...Prof. Dr. Melanie Schnell, Max-Planck-Institut für Struktur und Dynamik der Materie, runs the apparatus. Schau Schnell!

  3. bee:
    "Having just myself finished writing a book about the role of beauty in theoretical physics, ". can you tell us the name of your book, the publisher and the expected publication date?

  4. naivetheorist,

    I can neither tell you the title nor the expected publication date because I'm still waiting to hear back from my editor, sorry. I can tell you the US publisher will be Basic Books and the German publisher Fischer and then there's a Chinese publisher whose name I can neither recall nor pronounce nor type, so please excuse me. In any case, by my personal estimate middle to end of next year is realistic. Best,


  5. Great review. Looks like I have two-thirds of a book to read!

  6. Small quibble: "Hesketh also does a great job to describe how the various types of particle detectors work." Better: "does a great job describing". Of course, this is a small quibble, since your English writing is better than that of many native speakers.

    In this case, only "describing" makes sense. One could say, for example, "it is difficult to describe", which is a statement about the difficulty of the description; perhaps it is so difficult that no one will describe it. One could also say "it is difficult describing", which refers to someone during the act of description and hence implies that the description is not so hard that no-one has attempted it.

  7. Hi Sabine,

    I think I understand the last sentence as you mean it. But in my opinion before calling something "new physics", it has to be proven physical. Of course you know that some "new physics" is out there, and probably also what it is about (at least a chunk of it), but at present nobody knows what it looks like - not even that. So I think a name like "conjectural physics" would be more appropriate (and the public would understand better what all this is about); even if it includes the known physics, as long as predictions come wrong or unreachable it is just conjecture.


  8. "But when it comes to new physics the author doesn’t know what he’s talking about". When it comes new physics, I think an awful lot of people don't know what they're talking about. Ditto for old physics too.

  9. "...And there he’s clearly out of his water."

    Fish out of water?
    Out of his depth?

    I mention this only because the two figures of speech are about the perils of either too shallow or too deep water.

  10. " am left to wonder which fact he thinks will destroy a theory that he just told us is never wrong."

    that fact

  11. @akidbelle (

    To criticize is to volunteer. Absent executable observation, you cannot exceed theory. Absent the maths, you cannot exceed intent. Reality by intent awarded Europe 1000 years of...ever-larger gilded altars. M-theory, dark matter, SuSy...SMASH (arXiv:1610.01639).

  12. akidbelle,

    I see that it's an unfortunate expression, I'll try to avoid it in the future.

  13. I gather from your following examples & your recap "he doesn't know what he's talking about", that what you mean is he's "on unfamiliar ground". So that's suggestion #1. "Out of his depth" means he's "in too deep", he's overwhelmed, unable to function. I don't think that's what you wanted. Leaving "fish out of water". Meaning he's going somewhere he doesn't belong. That seems to fit. He needs to stop there. Either get a co-author or find another source to refer the reader to. FWIW, this is why I read you. You can point out better than I can figure out when an author doesn't know enough about & hasn't thought enough about BSM physics.

  14. Arun, Mike P,

    Sorry for mixing up the water metaphors, I was aiming at the fish out of water without mentioning the fish. Whether the water's too shallow or to deep depends on what you think the water stands for. His own knowledge (too shallow) the available knowledge (too deep). I meant the former.

  15. Being that he has worked at the cutting edge of experimental physics, as part of the ATLAS collaboration, this sounds like a book I will probably buy. But I'm especially looking forward to your upcoming book.

    When I read " one of three theorists on the planet who have worked on antigravity.", it caught my attention. So with a little googling I came across a presentation you did at the Perimeter Institute in 2009 that seemed to refer to this concept. But it was quite technical, and I didn't really understand it.

    But luckily, my twin brother is helping me to develop a deeper understanding of one of the two pillars of modern physics - General Relativity. About a year ago he bought a book titled "A Most Incomprehensible Thing", by Peter Collier, which I more recently purchased. He's more than 2/3rds of the way through the book, while I'm only at the beginning. On our periodic trips to a local casino he helps explain some of the more abstract things.

    Out of curiosity, who are the other two people looking into the concept of "antigravity".

  16. David,

    It was more a metaphorical count than an actual one. You can find a collection of references in this paper, but I'm not sure how many of these people (to the extent that they're alive) presently work on this. Two is my estimate. This does not include experimentalists, some of whom seem to believe there is an actual theory according to which antimatter falls up. Best,


  17. Euclidean triangles’ three interior angles sum to exactly 180°. Elliptic triangles are more than 180°, certainly up to and including 540°. Hyperbolic triangles are less than 180°, down to but not including 0°. Three LISA satellites will see gravitation elliptic triangles, yes? Anti-gravitation has hyperbolic triangles, yes? If so, reduce to practice.

    Kuratowski's theorem[1][2]) in space. Trivially synthesize 100% resolved enantiomers[3,4] in bulk. Equivalence Principle Look.

    2) DOI: 10.1007/128_2011_292
    3) DOI: 10.1126/science.1227032

  18. Uncle Al,

    I do not think I understand your comment.

    "To criticize is to volunteer." What does that mean?



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