Symmetry and the Beautiful Universe

Symmetry and the Beautiful Universe

By Leon M. Lederman and Christopher T. Hill
Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2004, Hardcover, 363 pages.

When a Nobel laureate and a well-known theoretical physicist write a book together, you expect something a little above average. Lederman and Hill's Symmetry and the Beautiful Universe is well above average with insights that I have not seen before. For Theosophists who are encouraged to "study religion, philosophy, and science," this book covers all three in various degrees.

With an introduction to symmetry, we learn about how music introduces this art form. The authors begin with Johann Sebastian Bach and then move to Pachelbel's Canon in D. While pondering this unique approach, we are introduced to the Greek scholar, Eratosthenes. This leads to Kepler to Galilee to Newton to Einstein. This panoramic sweep covers just the first twenty pages! (For Theosophists-Giordano Bruno is presented in the chapter on Inertia with a historical explanation of how pieces of nature's puzzle were being explored and put together.)

This book also has one of the best discussions of Emmy Noether I have ever read. She is regarded as one of the greatest female mathematicians of all times. Some mathematicians have her at the top of their list. However outside of such a circle, chances are most people have never heard of her. The discussion of her contributions makes this book worthy of being purchased.

Even though the underlying theme of the book is symmetry, there are study chapters and homework exercises on relativity, reflections, and broken symmetry. I was quite impressed with the ability of the authors to explain the difficult topic of quantum mechanics at the level they did. It was done in a very coherent fashion, but quite accurate and left little to be documented. The short chapter on the hidden symmetry of light was also well done. Here we meet the famous Feynman diagrams.

There are numerous short pithy and sometimes funny comments in this book that make a careful reading worthwhile. Even better are some of the illustrations. One of my favorites is the hand of an alien species with two thumbs. This hand is neither a right nor a left hand. It is also a great illustration of symmetry and can be found on page 169.

While I highly recommend this book, there are problems with readability. As a student, I never cared for text that included the math steps simply as part of the lines of the text. This book does, and as a close reading is necessary to comprehend the material, it complicates the understanding in my opinion.

Finally, the chapter on quarks and leptons brings the reader up to date and suggests a major revolution in the future. The Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator, is scheduled to go online in 2007. This will help answer a number of questions raised in the book.


March/April 2006