Light work of a heavy matter

Ian Sample’s _Massive – The Hunt for the God Particle_ is a fast-paced account of the quest for the Higgs boson, an elusive particle that is purported to solve the mystery of mass.

If you were unaware that the question of mass was the least bit mysterious, you are in good company–with about 99.99% of the population of the planet for whom the matter of matter has never arisen. I confess I haven’t considered it myself in any depth, even though I am the proud owner of a degree in Physics. My degree is a bit rusted now, having sat neglected in a far corner of my mind for several years. Even when it was freshly installed back in the mid-1980s I don’t remember being much troubled by the question of mass. I did get an introduction to particle physics, but the field seemed such a jumbled mess of exotic entities hopping in and out of existence that I never quite managed to get a firm grasp.

As a result, my attention wandered elsewhere. But who could have escaped the brouhaha in recent years–both positive and negative–surrounding the inception of Cern’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC), now installed in the 27 km ring that straddles the French-Swiss border at the foot of the white-capped Jura? The papers have been full of it, perhaps surprisingly given the arcane nature of the business of particle physics. Sample’s book is a timely attempt to put the genesis of the LHC and the meaning of its high-profile search for the Higgs boson into context.

It’s an entertaining and breathless read: Sample whizzes through the story, tracking the progress from Higgs’ first inkling of an idea back in the early sixties right up to the present day, which sees the particle physics community poised on the verge of discovery, waiting to see if the Higgs’ boson–the eponymous ‘God particle’–will finally flash into existence as the LHC is ramped up to full power.

The story is a deft mix of particles and personalities and the concoction is highly energetic. Sample weaves in and out of basic explanations of the esoteric Higgs field, covering both the ideas that engendered it and those that have grown up in its wake. He takes the reader into the core of the science, guiding with an assured but necessarily light touch. You won’t come away from the book with a deep understanding of the prosaically named ‘standard model’–physicists’ best theory of the composition of matter, a jigsaw puzzle of particles of which the Higgs’ boson is one of the last pieces–because the topic is too abstruse for mere words and demands mathematical capabilities that are beyond most readers, including this one. But the book nevertheless provides a fascinating glimpse beneath the surface of our ordinary reality to a world where men and women spend their lives unravelling complexities in Nature that are inapparent to most of us, except when we stop to wonder, to ask that most basic of questions: where did all this stuff come from?

_Massive_ is as much about the scientists as their science–whose interactions can seem as complex as those between the particles that they strive to uncover. For example, Higgs is far from being the only major figure in this story. As Sample makes clear, there were five other scientists, working in two teams–Brout and Englert, and Guralnik, Hagen and Kibble*–who came up with very similar theories of mass and have a claim, sometimes indignantly asserted, to the boson that, due to accidents of time and place, was named after Higgs.
These six are only some of the theorists who feature in the story. But just as influential are the experimentalists who drove the construction of the great particle accelerators at Fermilab in the US and Cern in Europe that have competed fiercely in the hunt for the Higgs boson. If anything, tensions between experimental scientists seem to have been more keenly felt down through the years as they fought for advantage and the priority of discovery that might secure a Nobel prize.

Sample’s tale bounces between the personalities and the tremendous technical difficulties involved in bringing these gigantic machines to life or, in the case of the doomed superconducting supercollider, to a much regretted still-birth. One of the strangest but, for me, most enjoyable chapters considers the dangers of smashing particles together at what are, for humans, unprecedented energies. The risks of creating an earth-devouring black hole–already played out vociferously in the media–are treated in thoughtful, if bizarre, detail. It is an odd account of hypothetical stranglets and the chilling prospect of _universe-destroying_ vacuum decay, but one that throws up some fascinating insights into mutual mis-understanding between scientists and the public.
The speed of the story makes for an exhilarating ride, but is sometimes bought at the expense of tantalising detail. Tastes will vary but on occasion I would have liked Sample to dally a while longer among the rivalrous particle physicists. I wanted to hear more about the maverick scientist and welder Robert Wilson, whose star waxed and waned at Fermilab. I wanted more of the dirt on Carlo Rubbia: just how did he get away with casually mis-directing Pierre Darriulat’s team–who were working towards the same goal on a different detector at Cern–and so secure the accolade of being the first to publish on the discovery of the W boson?

But it is the perhaps the mark of a good science story that it awakens so many questions. I am intrigued. And not only by the strange interactions between the cast of theorists, experimentalists and engineers behind the international quest for the most invisible fragments of the universe. The dormant physicist in me has been stirred to life by Sample’s lively, accelerated tale. As far as I am concerned, this certainly isn’t the end of the matter.


*Co-incidentally, Tom Kibble taught me the rudiments of mechanics in my first year of Physics at Imperial College. I had no idea of his research interests in this area.

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7 Responses to Light work of a heavy matter

  1. Jim Caryl says:

    Useful review, I shall have to look out for this. I would definitely agree that a whistle-stop tour of a science topic can keep you sat on the edge of your seat, thirsting for more. It is the mark of successful popular texts over academic texts.
    However, there is certainly an argument for more footnotes! I mean, Pratchett got away with them…

  2. Stephen Curry says:

    I hope I gave the impression that I’d certainly recommend it Jim. On balance I think Ian Sample probably made the right judgement in terms of the depth of his content since the book will have wider appeal than a weightier tome.
    But my preference would be for more in-depth science history – Richard Rhodes The Making of the Atomic Bomb remains a firm favourite. As a prelude to the Manhattan Project, it provides a superlative introduction to the birth of atomic and nuclear physics.

  3. Matt Brown says:

    Nice review, Stephen. Ian Sample is the guest on this week’s “Little Atoms”: podcast (an excellent weekly listen, covering scientific themes from a rationalist/humanist/skeptical standpoint…and with an endearingly folky theme tune.)

  4. Stephen Curry says:

    Cheers Matt – I had seen that he has been interviewed for the the latest episode. Little Atoms is one of the few podcasts that I subscribe to though my listening pattern is a bit variable.

  5. Stephen Moss says:

    Sounds like a good read. Having just finished ‘Too big to fail’, the story of how the near collapse of the banking system created the financial crisis that will mean less funding for science, I need something with a more positive message.

  6. Stephen Curry says:

    It’s breezy and enjoyable. But I’ll have to warn you – it ends on a cliff-hanger!

  7. Stephen Curry says:

    Following Matt’s recommendation I listened to the interview with Ian Sample on the Little Atoms podcast (see Matt’s comment above for the link). For anyone still dithering, the interview gives a good flavour of the book. Indeed, it reminded me that there are some great set-pieces in the story. One of the best is the tale of how Alvin Trivelpiece (what a great name!) pitched the idea for the Superconducting Supercollider to President Ronald Reagan.

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