The Theory of Almost Everything by Robert Oerter

In case you can’t pick up his direction from the subtitle of The Theory of Almost Everything (“The Standard Model, the Unsung Triumph of Modern Physics”), Robert Oerter lays it all out for you in the second paragraph of the Introduction:

the Standard Model has a surprisingly low profile for such a fundamental and successful theory. It has deeper implications for the nature of teh universe than chaos theory, and unlike string theory, which is purely speculative in nature, it has a strong experimental basis– but it is not as widely known as either. In physics news itesm, the Standard Model usually plays the whipping boy. Reports of successful experimental tests of the theory have an air of disappointment, and every hint of the theory’s inadequacy is greeted with glee. It is the Rodney Dangerfield of physical theories, it “don’t get no respect.” But it is, perhaps, the pinnacle of human intellectual achievement to date.

Oerter’s goal in writing this book is to try to give the Standard Model its proper place. The book lays out all the scientific developments leading to what we now call the Standard Model, from Maxwell’s equations through the dawn of quantum theory through QED and into QCD and the quark theory. It’s no small task that he’s set for himself.

This book was originally released in 2005, which means it slightly pre-dates the String Theory Wars books– Smolin’s The Trouble With Physcs, Woit’s Not Even Wrong, among others– though in terms of publicity it’s been absolutely buried by them. Which is really a shame, because it’s an excellent book, and better than any of the books squabbling over the status of string theory that have gotten so much attention.

Oerter takes a fairly expansive view of what constitutes the Standard Model, including all of quantum theory and QED in the theory along with the usual listing of particles and forces. This means he has a great deal of material to cover– the book starts in around 1800, with a discussion of fields and forces, and the first detailed physics explanations are of electromagnetism– but in a sense, this is a strength, not a weakness. Because he starts so early, he ends up assuming relatively little in the way of physics knowledge, and presents quick sketches of all the underlying theory in a consistent style, which is a big help when it comes to the later chapters.

The approach Oerter takes is basically historical, working through the experiments and theories that paved the way toward our current understanding of the world. Given the amount of material he has to cover, some of the initial discussions are rather brief– Relativity and Nother’s Theorem together get a mere twenty pages– but this is more a matter of being elegantly compact than abbreviated. In other places, he spends time explicitly discussing things that are often glossed over– half a chapter is spent explaining in detail the differences between the Feynman and Schwinger versions of QED, and how the language of both permeates high energy physics. A more typical approach is to assert the equivalence of the two approaches in passing, and then confuse the hell out of the reader by switching back and forth between particle and field descriptions as needed, so Oerter’s explanation of the connections between the two is most welcome.

This is not, however, a book for the faint of heart. It’s a challenging read in places, particularly when he gets to QCD and the Higgs boson, but it’s no more opaque than Smolin or Woit, and if you’re willing to take the time to re-read some key passages, Oerter has really done an outstanding job of putting all the essential information if front of the reader in a coherent and consistent way. The later chapters can be difficult to read, but that’s because the physics he’s describing is difficult to understand– he’s probably written the clearest and most complete description of modern physics that I’ve read.

If you find yourself reading physics blogs and asking “What in hell are they talking about?” when it comes to high-energy physics discussions, you could do a whole lot worse than reading this book. While Smolin and Woit describe much of the same physics that Oerter does, The Theory of Almost Everything offers a more engaging and comprehensive look at the field, and is refreshingly free of the polemical tone of the String Theory Wars books. While the book does end with the obligatory couple of chapters on speculative new physics, Oerter has not come to bury the Standard Model. He’s here to praise it, and he makes a compelling case for his claim that it represents “the pinnacle of human intellectual achievement to date.”

This is an excellent book, and deserves more attention than it’s gotten.