Every book on science focuses attention on a little sliver of a vast, complex universe. In Waves in an Impossible Sea, I had intended to write mainly about the Higgs field, and the associated Higgs particle that was discovered in 2012 to great fanfare. I was planning to explain how the Higgs field does its job in the universe, and why it’s so important for the existence of life.
However, this plan had a problem. The Higgs field would be irrelevant were it not for quantum physics on the one hand and Einstein’s relativity on the other, and to comprehend the latter requires some understanding of Galileo’s earlier concept of relativity. To show why the Higgs field can give mass (more precisely, rest mass) to certain types of particles requires combining all of these notions together. Each of these topics is daunting, worthy of multiple books, and I knew I couldn’t hope to cover them all in 100,000 words!
To my surprise, resolving this problem wasn’t as difficult as I expected, once I picked out a few crucial elements about each of these subjects that I felt everyone ought to know. Lining up those conceptual points carefully, I found I could give a non-technical yet accurate explanation of how elementary particles can get mass from a Higgs field. (A more mathematical explanation has been given previously on this website, in two series of articles here and here.)
Yet what surprised me even more was that the book’s main subject slowly changed as I wrote it. It became focused on the question of how ordinary life emerges from an extraordinary cosmos. Though a substantial section of the book is devoted to the Higgs field, it is situated in a much wider context than I originally imagined.
This shift of emphasis happened naturally. I had to explain how quantum physics, relativity, and the nature of space are blended together in quantum field theory (our best guide, so far, as to how to describe the basics of the cosmos.) But along the way I had to introduce a slew of counter-intuitive ideas. That task, in turn, required deconstructing human intuition about the world we live in, and replacing it with something deeper and stranger, a child of lessons learned from modern physics.
A key question raised by this replacement is the value of common sense. Under what circumstances is common sense a help, and when is it a hindrance? What are its pros and cons? How has it aided or obstructed science, both historically and in the present day? When should we rely on it, and when should we disregard or distrust it? I’m curious to know what readers think: are you a fan of common sense, or not?