Book Review: Antimatter, by Frank Close

A useful tutorial about antimatter hides inside a book that promises a lot more than it delivers

Reviewed By Sally Adee

Antimatter
By Frank Close;
Oxford University Press, 2009;
176 pp.; US $19.95;
ISBN 978-0-19-955016-6

Frank Close’s new book, Antimatter, needs no subtitle. If you’re interested, you’re going to pick it up. If you’re not, no verbal soft-shoe is going to persuade you to touch it.

Despite that, the first chapter makes as many promises as Lothario, then whispers seductively of a huge chunk of antimatter from space having caused the mysterious 1908 Tunguska event. (A favorite topic of Internet conspiracy theorists, this massively destructive explosion in Russia has hitherto been attributed to black holes, aliens, and the crowd favorite, Nikola Tesla.) If that’s not enough, Close then speculates whether the U.S. Air Force is secretly spending millions to turn antimatter into a weapon. You’d have to be dead not to plunge headlong into chapter 2.

Having started with dessert, the book follows up with an obligatory serving of vegetables: the history of the discovery of antimatter. Fortunately, Close’s writing skills are up to the task, even though all I really wanted was to get back to the part about how to contain antimatter to weaponize it.

Seven chapters and handfuls of equations later, after an unrelenting catalog of every top quark, strange quark, and Greek-lettered subcategory thereof and their corresponding anticounterparts, Close finally wears himself out. Surely now, I thought, we can get back to the good stuff.

Sadly, no. After I dutifully plodded through 113 pages of science and math history, my prurient interest in antimatter weapons and space-borne apocalypse was given a peremptory brush-off. To be exact: ”The Tunguska event was indeed dramatic, but there is no reason to suspect that the drama implies that a lump of antimatter hit the earth one midsummer day a century ago, or indeed, ever.” I felt like a jilted date on prom night. The pedantic pill was particularly hard to swallow after the bedroom eyes that were all over that first chapter. Oh, and that U.S. Air Force thing? Let me save you the trouble: ”Thanks to the inefficiencies of the transformation process of energy into antimatter, we do not have to worry about military applications.”

In my fevered imagination, the book owes its schizophrenic tone to a pitched battle between an overly zealous editor, who wrote the first chapter reaching for the coattails of the Dan Brown phenomenon, and a much more sober Oxford physicist. I can almost hear their shrieky confrontation. The last chapter again contains some sobering points (”If you want to use antimatter you must first make every antiparticle, which is a very inefficient process”) that are then offset, in another lover’s-quarrel compromise, by a breathless appendix about how one gram of antimatter equals the amount of energy in the Hiroshima bomb.

All the misdirection is a real shame, because that somewhat dry history of antimatter research isn’t bad at all. Even the equations are folded in without forming indigestible clumps. But if you were persuaded by the sensational first chapter to hook up with Antimatter, don’t bother.

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