A surprising, fascinating journey through the experiments that not only unlocked the nature of matter and shaped our understanding of the cosmos but also forever changed the way we live within it
"A book about the fundamental problems of physics written from a viewpoint I hadn’t come across before: that of the experimenter. A splendid idea, vividly carried out.” –Philip Pullman, best-selling author of His Dark Materials
Physics has always sought to deepen our understanding of the nature of matter and the world around us. But how do you conduct experiments with the fundamental building blocks of existence? How do you manipulate a particle a trillion times smaller than a grain of sand? How do you cause a proton to sail around a twenty-seven-kilometer-long loop 11,000 times per second? And, crucially, why is all this important?
In The Matter of Everything, accelerator physicist Suzie Sheehy introduces us to the people who, through a combination of genius, persistence and luck, staged the experiments that changed the course of history. From the serendipitous discovery of X-rays in a German laboratory to the scientists trying to prove Einstein wrong (and inadvertently proving him right) to the race to split open the atom, these brilliant experiments led to some of the most significant breakthroughs in science and fundamentally changed our lives. They have helped us detect the flow of lava deep inside volcanoes, develop life-saving medical techniques like diagnostic imaging and radiation therapy, and create radio, TV, microwaves, smartphones—even the World Wide Web itself—among countless other advancements.
Along the way, Sheehy pulls back the curtain to reveal how physics is really done—not only by theorists with equation-filled blackboards but also by experimentalists with hand-blown glass, hot air balloons and cathedral-sized electronics. Celebrating human ingenuity, creativity and above all curiosity, The Matter of Everything is an inspiring story of discovery and a powerful reminder that progress is a function of our desire to know.
About the Author
DR. SUZIE SHEEHY is a physicist, science communicator and academic who divides her time between research groups at the University of Oxford and University of Melbourne. She is currently focused on developing new particle accelerators for applications in medicine. The Matter of Everything is her first book.
A Best Book of the Year: New Scientist, The Sunday Times (UK)
“[An] absorbing scientific history. . . . Sheehy, a particle physicist who splits her time between labs at Oxford and the University of Melbourne, radiates enthusiasm for her field. . . . Delightfully accessible. . . . Sheehy also celebrates the long-overlooked contributions of female scientists, such as Harriet Brooks. . . . Is there anything left to discover? Sheehy argues that—despite all the discoveries of the past 125 years—our universe remains full of enigmas.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“Vividly described. . . . A sweeping but detailed and pacy account of 100 years of scientific advancement, The Matter of Everything has a cheering takeaway. What such leaps lie ahead? What questions seem intractable now that we won't give a thought to in the future? Sheehy mounts the case that - with persistence, curiosity and collaboration - we may yet overcome challenges that now seem impossible.”
“The Matter of Everything . . . brings out the stars of experimental physics, the people who directly observe, hypothesize and build machines firing beams of matter and energy to test theory against reality. . . . Give[s] a real sense of the thrill of scientific discovery.”
―The Times (UK)
“Never less than fascinating. . . . In the end, as Sheehy tells us, physics is not just about the search for how the Universe works: ‘Physics is all about people.’ Her journey through the history of particle physics reveals the extraordinary ingenuity of experimental scientists and their selfless dedication to answering big questions about matter and the universe. It is a field that has brought huge benefits to humankind, from new medical imaging technologies to cancer treatments. But in the end, it may well be the physicists’ example of working together to solve problems that will prove the most valuable to us all, at a time when the world faces unparalleled challenges.”
―The Guardian (UK)
“This is a book about the fundamental problems of physics written from a viewpoint I hadn’t come across before: that of the experimenter. Someone first thought of the cloud chamber, or the cyclotron, or the MRI scanner, and that person (or that team) had to build one: you couldn’t buy one off the shelf. The actual sequence of experiments, and failures, and more experiments, and success, is a fascinating one, especially for any readers excited, as I am, by the thought of making things. A splendid idea, vividly carried out: I enjoyed this book enormously.”
– Philip Pullman, best-selling author of His Dark Materials
“This fascinating and highly readable book captures the radical excitement of experimental science as it's being made. It’s an all-action thriller, laced with some of the most profound ideas humans have ever had.”
– Brian Eno
“Kicking off with the discovery of X-rays towards the end of the nineteenth century to the massive colliders scientists dream of building today, The Matter of Everything is an impassioned, elegant history of particle physics and its applications. Dr. Sheehy adroitly brings together a glittering cast of characters -- from the famous giants of the field to the unjustly overlooked scientists whose shoulders they stood on -- to tell the story of the most fundamental of all sciences.”
– Ananyo Bhattacharya, author of The Man From the Future
“The Matter of Everything is a magical tour of the great experiments defining the most incredible century in physics, which saw exploring the cutting edge of science move from tabletop curiosities to literally the world’s largest machines. Sheehy seamlessly weaves the science and history with why this matters to all of us: as she expertly illustrates, our quest to understand the tiniest of particles has had an enormous impact on technology, health and society, reaching far beyond the lab.”
– Andrew Steele, author of Ageless
“This is story-telling at its very best and why I fell in love with physics. Sheehy's attention to detail shines through every story and yet there's a lightness of touch in the way she highlights the passion, drive, ingenuity and, ultimately, the sheer triumph of science in unlocking nature's secrets.”
– Jim Al-Khalili, author of The World According to Physics
“Physicist [Suzie] Sheehy debuts with a terrific history of experiments that have changed the course of science. In a fast-paced and accessible narrative, Sheehy keenly demonstrates how ‘our view of the smallest constituents in nature has changed rapidly throughout the last 120 years.’ . . . Along the way come fascinating profiles of scientists, including several women who have been omitted from history. . . . With punchy writing and vivid historical details, Sheehy brilliantly captures the curiosity that fuels science, the frustration of ‘false starts and failures,’ and the thrill of finding answers that are bound to raise more questions. This is pop science at its best.”
—Publishers Weekly [starred review]