As a teenager, back in the late 1980s or possibly very early 1990s, I came across a very nice popular science book on particle physics in my hometown library, that I probably borrowed and read at least three times during high school. Many years later, when I took Quantum Field Theory II at university, it struck me how much of the physics (though not the detailed mathematical formalism) was familiar from that book read many years earlier, which made me curious about just how much substance the author actually managed to include — would I upon rereading it now discover there were discussions of even more matters than I understood back then? (Thinking about it, e.g. quark mixing seems quite plausible.) Alas, that library no longer has the book, and I took note of neither the title nor author…

The book itself was about 200 pages long, covering all of the standard model, with a short section about beyond-the-standard-model physics at the end. The main text described the development of particle physics in a mostly mathless manner, but was interrupted by fact boxes of up to 2 pages that could get surprisingly mathematical — I remember one of them defined the Weinberg angle clearly enough that I could just nod at the familiar concept when we covered that in QFT (despite my teenage self not having at all understood what it meant that $\gamma$ and $Z$ were two different mixings of $B$ and $W^0$)! There were (unsurprisingly) plenty of Feynman diagrams in the book, and I believe the book took the trouble of explaining the grammar of such diagrams. Some specific items I recall from the book are:

  • There is an anecdote telling how the laboratory at Frascati narrowly missed out on discovering the J/Ψ meson.
  • There is a fact box demonstrating matrix multiplication. Some of the matrices used only had a $1$ in one position, so I suspect this was getting at the Lie algebra of some symmetry group, though I don't recall it actually saying so.
  • It is explicitly stated that the standard model is a $\mathrm{U}(1) \times \mathrm{SU}(2) \times \mathrm{SU}(3)$ theory. I don't recall there being a definition of what a unitary matrix is, but there could well have been.
  • As mentioned above, there is a definition of the Weinberg angle, with a big diagram showing two coordinate systems for a plane rotated relative to each other (one set of $B,W^0$ axes, one set of $\gamma,Z$ axes).
  • There is no doubt in the book that the $W^\pm$ boson has been experimentally verified. I believe the empirical status of the $Z$ boson is approached more carefully; it could have been that part of the text was written before $Z$ was produced at CERN, even if the book was published later so that this "recent development" could be edited in. The existence of the top quark is taken as a sure thing but so far not been experimentally verified.
  • The Higgs boson I think is given less attention; it's certainly mentioned as a necessary ingredient if $Z$ is to be massive, but I don't think there was this sense of a hunt for producing it that we've seen in the 2000s.
  • Beyond the standard model, there is a discussion of $\mathrm{SU}(5)$ grand unified theory with $X$ bosons that would cause protons to decay. There might have been a discussion of supersymmetry. I don't think there was a discussion of string theory.

Until yesterday I thought the book might have been Kvarkarnas värld by Sigward Nilsson – it's from the right period, on the right topic, and only slightly thinner than my memory suggested — but now that I've got hold of a copy of that it is clear to me that this is not it. Apart from not matching most of the points above, Nilsson's book is written in a year-by-year fashion I don't recall, it is very focussed on the hadronic side of the standard model despite not dealing with colour at all, and even though there are "fact pages" that get more mathematical, these do not get framed as boxes.

Nilsson's book does anthropomorphise the quark flavours in a way that seems familiar, but the style of those drawings feels slightly off to me. Indeed, I now seem to recall the quarks being depicted more like gnomes (or maybe dwarves, Disney Snow White style), whereas in Nilsson's book, they are tadpole figures. The drawing of the bottom quark in the book I'm looking for has him showing his rear end would fit better with that book being originally written in English.

So what might the book be that I read? FWIW I read it in Swedish, but as mentioned above I strongly suspect it was a translation of an English language original.

  • $\begingroup$ You have not stated your question though it is obvious . In what language did you read this book? Perkin's 1982 edition comes to mind . here is the latest edition gammaexplorer.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/… $\endgroup$
    – anna v
    Commented Sep 17, 2020 at 3:39
  • $\begingroup$ popular science would not include feynman diagrams $\endgroup$
    – anna v
    Commented Sep 17, 2020 at 3:45
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @annav: On the contrary, popular science loves Feynman diagrams, because they are artefacts of science practice that look comprehensible to laymen — two particles come in, interact, something else comes out is exactly the kind of simple story that a popular science book about particle physics wants to tell! What popular science cannot do with Feynman diagrams is explain what they really mean, but few publishers are deterred by that. $\endgroup$
    – Lars H
    Commented Sep 17, 2020 at 9:37
  • $\begingroup$ @annav: Re: Perkins (downloaded and stashed, thanks): No, that's obviously a textbook; what I'm looking for really was a popular science book. Also, W was discovered in 1983, so a 1982 book couldn't have taken it for already discovered. $\endgroup$
    – Lars H
    Commented Sep 17, 2020 at 9:48
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    $\begingroup$ Sounds very like Frank Close's. "The cosmic onion". He used gnome-figures for quarks. Don't remember how far he got with the Weinberg angle. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 17, 2020 at 11:13

1 Answer 1


This sounds like Frank Close's "The Cosmic Onion".

Frank is still writing good stuff - latest is "Trinity", the story of Klaus Fuchs.

If you contact him - on Twitter he is @closefrank - I'm sure he'd be delighted.


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