Non-Fiction Reviews


Beyond the God Particle

(2013) Leon Lederman & Christopher Hill, Prometheus, 15.75 / Can$26.50 /US$24.95, hrdbk, 325pp, ISBN 978-1-616-14801-0

 

In case you had not guessed from the title, this is all about the Higgs boson and written by the person who coined the term 'the god particle' (albeit inspired by a Hawking quotation). Now, there has been much written about, and much news coverage provided by the media of, Europe's Large Hadron Collider experiment to find the Higgs boson and indeed SF2 Concatenation has given a fair bit coverage itself (including, of course, its discovery). The book's lead author, Leon Lederman, is himself a particle physicist and, indeed, a Nobel Prize winner for Physics (1988): won jointly with Melvin Schwartz and Jack Steinberger for the neutrino beam method and demonstration of the doublet structure of leptons (sub-atomic particles that react only weakly with others) through the discovery of the muon neutrino. Lederman is director emeritus at the Fermi Lab (accelerator) Christopher Hill is also a physicist and former Head of Theoretical Physics at Fermi. The two previously authored Quantum Physics for Poets which itself is an excellent introduction to quantum mechanics.

What we have with Beyond the God Particle is an explanation of the physics relating to the Higgs boson and all that Europe's CERN were doing to track it down.

Now it has to be said that this is challenging stuff. My own academic training is in environmental science and professional careers has been in the life science with recent years spent more focussed on biosphere science (or what we call in the trade, 'Earth systems science'). In terms of training, I left physics behind at A-level (high school, pre-university qualification for those outside of Brit Cit) and so I have no undergraduate (let alone graduate) experience in physics or a physics related discipline. Nonetheless, I found Lederman and Hill's narrative perfectly understandable though occasionally some pages had to be taken slowly or indeed re-read: quantum physics is not the easiest of topics but Leon Lederman and Christopher Hill managed at least to make it seem easier to understand than the planet's bio-geo climate change dance (my recent specialisation). In short, you do not need to be a physicist to get an awful lot out of this book but I would respectfully venture that a sound background in science at high school level is necessary. Fortunately there are very many who have left high school with science qualifications with some physics somewhere in the mix and so this book should have a reasonably-sized potential readership which would include those deeply into popular science publications such as New Scientist.

The book's style is chatty, and I like that. It also near seamlessly merges both the theoretical physics and the story as to how the Higgs boson was tracked down and finally cornered in some fields straddling the Swiss-French border. It is also clear that the authors are passionate about their subject. The introduction sees them have a bit of a moan that the US had basically given up on building the high energy beam kit to detect sub-atomic particles such as the Higgs. They also (rightly) point out that though expensive, the economic spin-offs of such work are potentially huge. For instance, the tools enabling the world wide web were conceived by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN. If US science had just 0.01% (a hundredth of a penny on the dollar) of every dollar transacted via the web then the US would not only have had its own CERN-strength particle beam but by now be on to the next generation of high-energy beams. (Having said that, I certainly have no complaints as to what we Europeans have done with CERN and am not so sure it would be more international if the Yanks had run the show. Yet there point is a worthy one and one I made myself to our formal Governmental Scientific Advisor, David King, when I was having a moan about CERN's cost.) Nonetheless, I do feel for Lederman's frustration at US political myopia when it comes to science. But Lederman and Hill might be reminded that such myopia is not confined to US politicians but most politicians everywhere.

In addition the book contains much incidental stuff about which I thought I knew but did not. For example, I thought that the CERN accidental release of coolant at the end of 2009 was a trifling event more to do with the delicacy of the experiment involving complex kit: it actually was a catastrophic release of liquid helium that buckled steel doors and condensed nitrogen out of the air! In fact it was a wonder that nobody died.  The authors also make a really, really big thing about energy and mass not being the same thing; they are most certainly not, but they can be converted from one to the other. (This misconception must be something that they have come across many times before.) But mass is at the centre of the Higgs story. A muon flickers between two ('left' and 'right') forms and this gave it mass. You can stop it doing the Zitterbewegung flicker by getting it to travel at the speed of light when to us it would seem as if its time had stopped still and then (like a photon) it would be massless. At lower speeds flickering between the two forms occurs and the muon has mass. If the muon is changing forms then something must be interacting with it and that something is the Higgs boson and that is what gives the muon mass. (Though whether or not that explains all mass is another matter as in fact nearly all mass is connected to the strong nuclear force and not the weakly interacting Higgs.) My one minor gripe 'minor' because the story told and grounding in Higgs-related quantum physics is so good is that the book tells us little about the physics theorised spurred by the confirmation of the Higgs boson. It is a gripe because that is the book's title, but I guess they wanted something catchy. Nailing the God Particle, or something like it, might have been better.

Beyond the God Particle is not the easiest of books to read, but that is purely down to the topic's complexity. But if you really want to get to grips with what the hunt for Higgs was all about and have at least a solid school-level grounding in physics, or have been a passionately avid reader of magazines such as New Scientist, then this is as about as good an explanation as you are likely to get.

Jonathan Cowie


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