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Mass: The Quest to Understand Matter from Greek Atoms to Quantum Fields

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Everything around us is made of 'stuff', from planets, to books, to our own bodies. Whatever it is, we call it matter or material substance. It is solid; it has mass. But what is matter, exactly? We are taught in school that matter is not continuous, but discrete. As a few of the philosophers of ancient Greece once speculated, nearly two and a half thousand years ago, matter comes in 'lumps', and science has relentlessly peeled away successive layers of matter to reveal its ultimate constituents.

Surely, we can't keep doing this indefinitely. We imagine that we should eventually run up against some kind of ultimately fundamental, indivisible type of stuff, the building blocks from which everything in the Universe is made. The English physicist Paul Dirac called this 'the dream of philosophers'. But science has discovered that the foundations of our Universe are not as solid or as certain and dependable as we might have once imagined. They are instead built from ghosts and phantoms, of a peculiar quantum kind. And, at some point on this exciting journey of scientific discovery, we lost our grip on the reassuringly familiar concept of mass.

How did this happen? How did the answers to our questions become so complicated and so difficult to comprehend? In Mass Jim Baggott explains how we come to find ourselves here, confronted by a very different understanding of the nature of matter, the origin of mass, and its implications for our understanding of the material world. Ranging from the Greek philosophers Leucippus and Democritus, and their theories of atoms and void, to the development of quantum field theory and the discovery of a Higgs boson-like particle, he explores our changing understanding of the nature of matter, and the fundamental related concept of mass.

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Baggott Jim
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Jim Baggott is a freelance science writer. He was a lecturer in chemistry at the University of Reading but left to work with Shell International Petroleum Company and then as an independent business consultant and trainer. His many books include Quantum Space: Loop Quantum Gravity and the Search for the Structure of Space, Time, and the Universe (OUP, 2018), Origins: The Scientific Story of Creation (OUP, 2015), Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the 'God Particle' (OUP, 2012), A Quantum Story: A History in 40 Moments (OUP, 2011) and A Beginner's Guide to Reality (Penguin, 2005), Quantum Reality: The Quest for the Real Meaning of Quantum Mechanics — A Game of Theories (OUP, 2020), and The Quantum Cookbook: Mathematical Recipes for the Foundations of Quantum Mechanics (OUP, 2020).


Part I: Atom and Void
1: The Quiet Citadel
2: Things-In-Themselves
3: An Impression of Force
4: The Sceptical Chymists
Part II: Mass and Energy
5: A Very Interesting Conclusion
6: Incommensurable
7: The Fabric
8: In the Heart of Darkness
Part III: Wave and Particle
9: An Act of Desperation
10: The Wave Equation
11: The Only Mystery
12: Mass Bare and Dressed
Part IV: Field and Force
13: The Symmetries of Nature
14: The Goddamn Particle
15: The Standard Model
16: Mass without Mass
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