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Only the Longest Threads

Only the Longest Threads

Tasneem Zehra Husain

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221-page paperback / 5.5" x 8.5" / ISBN 978-1-58988-088-7 / Publication Date: November 2014

Only the Longest Threads presents dramatic and lucid accounts of the great breakthroughs in the history of physics—classical mechanics, electromagnetism, relativity, quantum mechanics, quantum field theory, and string theory—each from the viewpoint of a (fictional) witness to the events.

Tasneem Zehra Husain re-imagines the pivotal moments in the history of physics when radical new theories shifted our perception of the universe, and our place in it. Husain immerses the reader in the immediacy and excitement of the discoveries—and she guides us as we begin to understand the underlying science and to grasp the revolutionary step forward each of these milestones represents.

"Part fiction, part overview of 'Aha!' moments in the forward march of physics, Only the Longest Threads takes readers dramatically through scientific fields such as quantum field theory, electromagnetism, relativity, quantum mechanics, and string theory. Each idea or concept is explored in an inventive chapter, each told from a different first-person narrator; the faux emails, letters, and diary entries take place from 1728 to the present day."—Boing Boing, "The Best Books for Nerds from 2014"

“The author demonstrates her own solid understanding of physics as she translates it for nonscientists, and she makes clever use of analogy to illustrate scientific concepts…A fictional approach to physics that captures both the substance of the theory and the passion of its practitioners.”—Kirkus


Tasneem Zehra Husain (@tasneemzhusain) is a writer, educator, and Pakistan’s first female string theorist. She holds a PhD from Stockholm University and did post-doctoral research at Harvard University.

Husain is fascinated by scientific theories, how we engage with them, and how they change us. She explores these themes in her fiction and nonfiction writing, her popular talks, and the educational workshops she conducts for science teachers. Husain is actively involved in science outreach, and frequently delivers talks about theoretical physics to students and lay audiences. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Read Tom Elliott's profile of Tasneem Zehra Husain. 

Read a Q&A with the author.

Discussion Questions

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Advance praise for Only the Longest Threads:

“Science is done by real human beings, with human concerns. Only the Longest Threads tells a story that conveys the human side of science in a way that is as moving as it is accurate.—Sean Carroll, theoretical physicist at Caltech and author of The Particle at the End of the Universe

Tasneem Zehra Husain writes lyrically, poetically about life, love, and physics. I highly recommend this wonderful book for anyone interested in what physics, and indeed all of science, is about. She masterfully describes the most momentous moments in physics history with verve and talent.—Amir D. Aczel, bestselling author of Fermat’s Last Theorem

“A delightful meditation on the development of modern physics, culminating in the discovery of the Higgs. Husain follows the thread of its creation through a dialog between a journalist and young theory student, and as seen through the eyes of witnesses.”—John Huth, Donner Professor of Science, Harvard University

“How do theoretical physicists think? Tasneem Zehra Husain knows. She knows their purpose, feels their passions, articulates their frustrations, shares their triumphs. Through the device of fiction Only the Longest Threads communicates the history of physical thought—its roots in inquisitiveness and essential disinterest in outcome—with greater clarity than any popular science text.” —Michael Duff FRS, Abdus Salam Professor of Theoretical Physics, Imperial College London

“Well-written and cleverly constructed, this book takes us on a journey through the history of physics as a series of fictional adventures, loosely linked by another fiction, the storytellers’ emails to each other. Some books are praised because ‘I couldn’t put it down,’  but this one merits a deeper reading, one that stops, muses on, and savors each story before going on to the next. Each one captures not only the emergence of a significant idea in physics, but also something of the characters, culture, and times surrounding that development. So take your time, pause to ponder, but persevere, you will be well rewarded!”—Helen R. Quinn, Physicist, Science Educator, and Co-author of The Mystery of the Missing Antimatter, Professor Emeritus SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

“Tasneem Zehra Husain’s writing is both enlightening and entertaining as it captivates the challenge and excitement of working at the forefront of paradigm-shifting discoveries. Book-ended by the history-making discovery of the Higgs field, this tale offers a sparkling account of our understanding of fundamental physics. Through many voices rich with evocative metaphors, the threads woven through time and place that make up our current understanding of reality are revealed.”—Elizabeth F. McCormack, Professor of Physics, Bryn Mawr College

Only the Longest Threads describes the process of scientific discovery by focusing on the human elements: the bold conjectures, the wrong turns in the road, the competitiveness among scientists, the strength of their community, all seen from the point of view of the writers of letters and journals who make up the narrative. The clear, flawless prose is laced with a gentle wit when human behavior is described in the terms of physics—a welcome, light-handed nerdiness. Everyone who has studied physics but is unable to see the forest for the trees—and that means most of us—will relish this lovely little volume as it brings into perspective, through its accessible yet substantive treatment of the grand unifications, a magnificent edifice created by the human mind.”—Asad Abidi, Distinguished Chancellor’s Professor, UCLA Engineering

“Tasneem Zehra Husain skillfully weaves a poetic tapestry from tight threads of science and richly imagined strands of time. A weft of physics and warp of love makes a delightfully gripping read. Her flowing prose conducts us by some unfamiliar force from falling apples to colliding protons where the Higgs boson looms.”—Joseph Mazur, author of Enlightening Symbols

“This highly original book puts a fresh perspective on humanity's inevitable obsession with understanding the laws of Nature. On an artfully constructed journey through space and time, Tasneem Zehra Husain gives us a tantalizing taste of how physicists struggle to find ‘true nuggets of gold, and the only immortal elixir.’”—Freddy Cachazo, Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics

“Tasneem Zehra Husain’s observant narrators are witnesses to the intellectual revolutions of Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, Bohr, and others, the drama building to the mysteries of the present day. She uses her deep knowledge of physics to create a new genre—true science fiction, imagined vignettes of physics in all its humanity, woven together as a story within a story.”—Mark A. Peterson, author of Galileo’s Muse

"Only the Longest Threads is a page-turner that portrays the excitement of discovery in physics from Isaac Newton to string theory. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to feel the thrill of the succession of ideas that have led us to the current highly successful, but incomplete, understanding of our universe."—Richard Dower, Chairman, Science Department, Roxbury Latin School

“This book reveals a love affair, a love affair with physics. Only the Longest Threads is not about formulas and mathematics, but about people who have changed the way we comprehend the universe. We meet these icons, some ancient and some brand new, in a very personal way, and see that the driving force behind discoveries is very often a passionate relationship with the problems you try to solve.”—Olov Amelin, Director of the Nobel Museum

“With a self-referential structure reminiscent of Calvino’s novels, and a premise—that fiction can bring physics to life—similar to McCormmach’s Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist, Tasneem Zehra Husain takes us on a journey through epic discoveries as they might have been seen at the time by amateur enthusiasts. With the story framed by the discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN, and carried forward through e-mails between an aspiring young physicist and a struggling science journalist, the ‘long threads’ of the ‘tapestry’ woven by Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, are examined in the course of elegantly composed letters between imagined witnesses to physics history, until the narrative is taken out of their hands for a buildup to the Higgs boson discovery, and a nod to string theory.”—Paul Townsend, DAMTP Professor of Theoretical Physics, University of Cambridge

“It is very rare to come across a book popularizing science that not only gives an excellent rendition of the development of a research area but also has high literary qualities. Tasneem Zehra Husain has managed to combine an outstanding description of the development of several areas in physics while painting historical and geographical mini sketches, using voices from the times and places where key developments took place. Theoretical physicists will nod in recognition when reading about CERN, the Niels Bohr Institute, Trieste, Stockholm, Harvard and Cambridge University. The author is obviously sharing her experience of all these places. I have read many popular books describing various stages in the attempts to unify fundamental physics, but none as convincing and as good a read as this one.”—Ulf Lindström, Professor of Physics, Uppsala University

“Husain takes you by the hand and walks you through half a dozen of the most important discoveries in physics over the past three centuries, in each case as seen through the eyes of a fictional protagonist living through the discovery. Along the way she gives you an almost personal sense of how science feels as it is happening, along with distilled insights into the essence of the discoveries themselves. These vignettes are wrapped in a story that is in itself a page-turner. I can’t wait for the sequel.”Krishna Rajagopal, Professor and Associate Department Head for Education, Physics, MIT


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