Friday, October 07, 2005

Fearful symmetry

William Blake (1757-1827)

The Tyger

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

The New Yorker take:

Also the title of a popular science book on particle physics, by one of my collaborators:


Anonymous said...

Surely Tony must get a kick out of writing his name as "A. Zee".

steve said...

Believe it or not, we have the same Chinese character for our family name. The Shanghainese pronunciation is closer to "Zee" while the translation into English usually ends up "Hsu" or "Shu" or even "Tsui" (Cantonese). Tony has been trying to get me to change my name to Zee so we can write a paper co-authored by Zee and Zee! (My dad is actually from near Shanghai.)

A. Zee said...

I have been urging Steve to change his name to Steve Zee and just couldn’t understand why he is so chicken about it. It is just an arbitrary transliteration (a many-to-many mapping) about which there are only two significant issues. (1) How close is it to the original pronunciation? (2) How easily could people who do not speak Chinese (and these include many Czechs and Sri Lankans, I must inform the Americocentric among you) pronounce it?

I am so grateful that my father (a great businessman now living in Brasil) named me the way he did: there is no question that it has helped my careers (as a physicist and as a writer) a great deal in terms of name recognition and retention. Now Steve has the opportunity of increasing the number of Zees in the world by 4 or 5 in one stroke. I don’t know why he doesn’t do it. We will celebrate with a physics paper by Zee and Zee, with a footnote referring to “the physicist formerly known as Hsu.” Instead, his sheer inertia would destine his triplet to three lifetimes of hearing people pronounce their last name as something like “Hasoo” and of having to spell their name five times for hotel operators and the like.

And for those who don’t know anything about Chinese characters let me shamelessly plug my book Swallowing Clouds here.

DB said...

And if you postulated a new quark together, you could call it the "Zee-Zee Top".

Anonymous said...


BTW, I think Tony Zee's book on QFT is the BEST intro text. I wish he had written it while I was a grad student; it would have saved me so many precious months.

After that reading other books, and especially Weinberg, makes much more sense.

I have not read any of his popular books; now I am reminded I should read some.


steve said...

DB: stop! yer killin' me :-)

MFE: Yes, QFT in a Nutshell is excellent, as is Fearful Symmetry. Now you are ready to look at Itzyksen and Zuber again :-)

A. Zee said...


Any decision yet to rename yourself and Deborah and to name the triplet Zee? It is much easier to do it now rather than later.

I thought the remark about ZZ Top absolutely brilliant. Of course I also like MFA’s wish that I had written “In nuce” (I just learned this Latin phrase last night and immediately have a chance to show off ☺) while he was a grad student, but the sentiment is hardly original: Wilczek already said it on the back cover of the book.

Just imagine the degree of name recognition and retention that papers by Zee and Zee will enjoy!

A. Zee

Anonymous said...


I am tempted to say more about Itzykson and Zuber, but I will resist, remembering the old adage: if you do not have anything good to say, do not say it!

I hadn't realized Prof. Zee was responding to this thread. He correctly took me to task for saying something unoriginal; a highly distinguished physicist had already said it. However, note that Wilczek is not only very smart but also had the good fortune of learning the subject from masters like David Gross and Sidney Coleman; no such luck for most like me! I will expand briefly what I meant by that cryptic note.

When I was an eager physics undergrad back in India, I very much wanted to learn about particle physics and QFT. The only options I had were Bjorken and Drell, Itzykson and Zuber, and for particle physics Cheng and Li.( No, I had not heard of Georgi's marvellous slim book, but it may not have helped much because of my inadequate knowledge of QFT; those were not the golden days of globalization). I spent a lot of time studying those books, getting throrughly confused and in retrospect wasted too much time on useless things, completely missing the big picture.Incidentally, I too liked the original Mandl, but it was too elementary and old, as noted by Prof. Zee.

I am CERTAIN if I had access to Prof. Zee's book then, I would have learnt things much, much more quickly and effectively.

It reminds me a bit about my experience with Feynman's Lectures on Physics Vo. III. I remember reading that book early on during my undergraduate years. Since then I have read many books on QM, some quite nice and useful. But, barring Dirac's Principles of QM, I would still say that no book on QM comes close in terms of beauty, HONESTY(many more 'advanced' and 'rigorous' books pretend to say more than they actually do) and clarity of exposition of the subject. I thought it was the best book I read then, I think it is truer even more so now.

While Zee's excellent text is not (yet!) as exciting and fun to read as FLOP III, I think it is the best book in the market in terms of giving an accurate picture of the way QFT is used in practise. In this already more integrated world, my undergrad college library has a copy of Zee's book, obviating the need to travel over 10,000 miles to get a modern education on the subject. Not to mention stuff in the arxiv(like Siegel's Fields, or recent short one by Alvarez-Gaume, etc). It is not as critical to go to Harvard or Princeton to get a first-rate understanding of QFT anymore. Welcome to globalization (fits nicely with the theme of your blog)!

Sometimes I amuse myself in my spare time by writing my own 'text' on theoretical physics, especially QFT, (perhaps my children will read it?) addressing my own 'pet peeves' about the way the subject is presented. I am writing it in 'bite-sized' chapters (as in FLOP or Zee) that a good undergrad should be able to understand. What is most interesting to me is how the the 'advanced' parts of the subject are really not 'hard', and actually clarify and simplify things. It is interesting to try to "make statements as accurate as possible, point out where they fit into the body of physics and how things are later modified"(Feynman).

So Prof. Zee, the point is that "Perhaps in some small place where there are individual teachers and students, they may get some inspiration or some ideas from (feynman)" QFT in a Nutshell!


A. Zee said...

MFA’s comments are well taken. When I wrote Nutshell I did keep in mind students trying to teach themselves QFT without the benefit of being at a top research university. Indeed, when I was in Brasil I tried to learn general relativity, and the only book I could find at the time was by Synge. That was by no means a bad book, but the approach was completely idiosyncratic! It wasn’t until much later after I read Weinberg’s book that I felt some mastery of GR. So based on my own experience I am completely sympathetic to what MFA said. As for comparison, at least stylistically, between my book and FLOP, see the review by Flip Tanedo on

I wonder if the readers of this blog will continue to comment on this thread; much of the excitement among the readers of this blog seems to have gone to the new paper (see this blog) Steve Zee and I wrote.

Blog Archive