The Matter of Everything

Suzie Sheehy

The Matter of Everything
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The Matter of Everything

Suzie Sheehy

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.


Despite being inpossession of so little scientific knowledge that the mysteries of the internal combustion engine still elude me, I found myself absorbed by this fascinating book. Suzie Sheehy is a physicist, academic and science communicator and in The Matter of Everything she explains in exhaustive detail the 12 experiments that changed the world. Her book is a deeply fascinating and illuminating study of the history of modern physics.

Sheehy begins with the discovery of x-rays – which were named ‘X something’ like all new discoveries, and no one ever tinkered with this nomenclature. She takes us inside the lab as early scientists, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, Ernest Rutherford, Hans Geiger, Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr pursue splitting the atom, chasing neutrons, quarks and building particle accelerators. Even though I probably understood less than half of Sheehy’s explanations and descriptions she recounts these epic stories in fascinating and thrilling ways; the reader will feel like they are close by, watching the researchers following their hunches and intuitions. The early chapters almost read like a steampunk thriller, as Sheehy details the excitement and trepidation of making experiments into the complete unknown. For instance, in the earliest attempts to split the atom, scientists proceeded nervously, believing that their experiments might tamper with the building blocks of the universe and potentially cause the end the world.

I emerged from my reading of The Matter of Everything with a new understanding of how carbon dating works and some idea of the research that created MRI and CT scanners, microwaves, radar and of course, everybody’s favourite machine, the Large Hadron Collider, which gave us the God particle and also gave Nick Cave the song, ‘Higgs Boson Blues’.

Pierre Sutcliffe is from Readings St Kilda

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