The Matter of Everything

Twelve Experiments that Changed Our World

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Pub Date 28 Apr 2022 | Archive Date 28 Apr 2022

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The astonishing story of twentieth-century physics, told through the twelve experiments that changed our world

For millennia, people have asked questions about the nature of matter. In the twentieth century, this curiosity led to an unprecedented outburst of scientific discovery that changed the course of history.

In The Matter of Everything, accelerator physicist Suzie Sheehy introduces us to the people who, through a combination of genius, persistence and luck, staged these ground-breaking experiments. From the physicists who soared in hot air balloons on the trail of new particles, to the serendipitous discovery of X-rays in a German lab; and from the race to split open the atomic nucleus to the quest to find the third generation of matter, Sheehy shows how these experiments informed innumerable aspects of how we live today. Radio, TV, the chips in our smartphones, MRI scanners, radar equipment and microwaves, to name a few: these were all made possible by our determination to understand, and control, the microscopic.

Pulling physics down from the theoretical and putting it in the hands of the people, The Matter of Everything is a celebration of human ingenuity, creativity and curiosity: a powerful reminder that progress relies on the desire to know.


'A splendid idea, vividly carried out: I enjoyed this book enormously' PHILIP PULLMAN

'Fascinating and highly readable . . . An all-action thriller, laced with some of the most profound ideas humans have ever had' BRIAN ENO

'A magical tour of the great experiments defining the most incredible century in physics' ANDREW STEELE, bestselling author of Ageless

The astonishing story of twentieth-century physics, told through the twelve experiments that changed our world

For millennia, people have asked questions about the nature of matter. In the twentieth...

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Featured Reviews

The Matter of Everything tells the tale of twelve experiments and inventions that shaped our world.

You can tell the author is extremely passionate about the subject matter; it feels like talking to a friend who is very knowledgable. It's hard not to be in awe of these people who discovered and created so much of what we use in our lives now.

At points I did find I got a bit too bogged down in the detail and I am not science-minded so some of it was difficult for me to picture. But overall I think this is well executed and makes physics a bit more accessible to the masses.

Thanks to NetGalley and Bloomsbury for the opportunity to review this book!

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Dr Suzie Sheehy (as she never styles herself in the book), is a particle accelerator physicist and - here - as elsewhere a science communicator. Luckily in The Matter Of Everything she is communicating about her precise subject, particle physics, and attempting in a history of twelve experiments to justify its existence. There is much of the book where she pulls back a curtain on a world of consumer goods and a whole host of cancer treatments and just says look at what you have won by backing this horse. And then she pulls the curtain back, describes the development of yet another particle accelerator and wants to yell at you - "but isn't this amazing". She doesn't yell, the book manages to just about walk the tightrope of popular science of trying to keep the reader up with mind-blowing developments on the tiniest scale, but she also knows this stuff costs money.

It is not her fault that the book falls broadly into two distinct phases. The first half is a pretty breathless race through the discovery of the building blocks of the universe. The atom, then the electrons and then - well we keep going. And the jerry rigged experiments of the early stage, the scientists building cloud chambers on magners, naturally hits the second half where the scientific industrial complex builds bigger and bigger accelerators, colliders and cyclotrons (sadly by this point he word Jumbotron was already taken). She also almost paints herself into a corner by being trapped by the great man view of history 9No matter how many great women she tries to rescue). Her real conclusion, at the very end is all about co-operation. That if particle science can teach us anything its that none of these advances were made in a vacuum*, that they were made in the spirit of co-operation, massive teamwork and scientific excitement - which sometimes the tale of Rutherford in the Cavendish Lab doesn't always bring out.

You're stuck with the history you have, and by the time we get to the Large Hadron Collider and the Higgs-Boson, we are on the fifth iteration of the same story. And yet in her conclusion, she casually drops in the fact that we don't know what 95% of the mass of the universe is made up of (Dark Matter is still a near complete mystery). Its in many ways an odd conclusion to put together, she obviously wants to dazzle us with the beauty of science, but also lets us know that if we become scientists, we will also gain the skills to become successful entrepreneurs of or work in finance. That slight hint of desperation is understandable, those next leaps almost certainly come from an even bigger collider with the kind of price tag no individual country is picking up. Not even for a glimpse past that curtain at even better microwaves. Its fascinating stuff, brought to life, but its that wistful pause at the end that really got to me. The end of scence really is when we stop paying for it.

*Some were made in a vacuum tube.

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I'm not particularly blessed with a scientific mind but was pleasantly surprised by how much of this I not only understood but enjoyed reading about. I had taken scientific advances at face value and not really though much about how they came about but this book has enlightened me a lot. Still reading ,as my brain can only process so much at a time, but really enjoying this book.

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Who knew physics could be so much fun! I never realised that physics underpins so many important discoveries, from hot air balloon flights to the discovery of X rays and smart phone chips. What makes this book so readable is that you see it from the side of the innovative scientists who made these discoveries. The human aspect is well told and invites you to keep reading what could have been a dry and unappealing subject. Try it and learn about physics in an easy-to read way.

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