Some of the 1232 dipole magnets in the Large Hadron Collider in a tunnel of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research

Part of the Large Hadron Collider, where author Guido Tonelli worked on the Higgs boson, foundational to the structure of the Universe.Credit: Valentin Flauraud/AFP/Getty

Genesis: The Story of How Everything Began Guido Tonelli (transl. Erica Segre & Simon Carnell) Profile (2021)

Physicist Guido Tonelli has spent decades constructing intricate instruments to probe the mysteries of matter. As part of one of the two main experiments at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland, he vaulted to international attention in front of a packed auditorium in July 2012,when the group announced the discovery of the Higgs boson — the long-sought elementary particle that imparts mass to all others.

Now, Tonelli has turned his gaze from the very small to the very large — the history of the Universe. His ambition encompasses scientific insights, art, philosophy and religion. Genesis is not just a book about the cosmos as measured by giant telescopes and particle accelerators. It is also a story of humanity’s interpretations of the beginning and evolution of creation.

Many other physicists, from Stephen Hawking to Janna Levin, have explored this space in popular writing. Most cater to an Anglophone audience. Tonelli’s contribution — a bestseller in his native Italy — has a different flavour. It combines the humanistic approach that underpins much Italian education with scientific facts gleaned from a career as a nuts-and-bolts experimentalist.

Tonelli argues that the search for the origins of the cosmos arises from humans’ need to be rooted. His biblical title nods to the idea that current scientific understanding is part of a much wider cultural history. And the picture of creation built up by twenty-first-century science is as astonishing and mysterious as any ancient myth.

His starting point is Hesiod’s Theogony, a poem from around 700 bc on the birth of the Greek gods. In the beginning, there was chaos. Tonelli uses ‘chaos’ in its original sense — a chasm or void so enormous that it could swallow and contain everything — rather than with its more modern connotation of disorder. Just as silence can be understood as a superposition of opposite-phase sound waves that cancel one another out, the void can host unlimited quantities of matter and antimatter, yet have a net energy of zero. The Universe was born 13.8 billion years ago from a random quantum fluctuation in this void.

A sweeping description ensues. First came the unfathomably quick inflation through which the Universe ballooned in size. Next came cooling, in which hierarchies of forces, symmetries, particles, black holes, stars and galaxies emerged. Each chapter represents a ‘day’ in Tonelli’s genesis, capturing an important phase as the Universe acquired structure. Here lie phenomena such as baryogenesis (the mysterious process that led to the asymmetry between matter and antimatter); the primordial soup of quarks and gluons from which the building blocks of atoms were born; and the uncoupling of matter from radiation.

Matter and mythology

Tonelli references all manner of mythology and literary sources. He is also scrupulous in explaining how scientists arrived at their conclusions. The chapter on the Big Bang describes the work of researchers including Albert Einstein, Georges Lemaître and Henrietta Swan Leavitt, and refers to the Hindu deity Shiva, the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness, or Śūnyatā, and Jorge Luis Borges’s 1945 short story ‘The Aleph’. Although fascinating, the conceptual leaps between scientific detail and cultural references are demanding to follow.

The book’s most vivid passages are its more scientific ones. The description of the Higgs boson, and its foundational importance in the development of the structure of the Universe and our understanding of it, is clearly home turf for Tonelli. He makes deep and lucid connections with concepts such as spontaneous symmetry breaking, the process through which a physical system enters its lowest-energy state by seemingly disregarding all the other possible states with the same symmetry. And the chapters examining the formation and structure of stars and galaxies are spellbinding – it would be a joy to listen to these while gazing at a starry sky.

Yet Tonelli leaves a gap between the very small and the very large. Considering that so much of his story pertains to the transformation of matter across phases, it is striking that he makes no explicit connection with branches of physics developed to understand these phenomena, such as the theory of phase transitions that explains the structural rearrangement when water becomes ice. This omission exposes a cultural gap in physics. But some pioneering physicists, such as Robert Brout, Murray Gell-Mann and Ken Wilson, have managed to connect high-energy particle physics with its ‘low-energy’ condensed-matter cousin. Tonelli misses a trick here.

Ultimately, however, his goal is to bridge a much wider gap — the one between science and the humanities. For Tonelli, everything in the evolution of the Universe, culture and the human condition follows from the need to understand our origins. Stories allow us to make sense of the void from which all things began. It is fitting that his own story is complex, mysterious and, at times, even messy — a bit like the Universe itself.