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Sparkling account of the hunting of the Higgs,
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This review is from: The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World (Hardcover)
Many of us remember where we were during key world events; particle physicists would likely remember where they were on July 4, 2012. That was the day the Higgs boson was discovered at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva. By any measure it was one of the most momentous discoveries in physics, perhaps in all of science. But what exactly is the Higgs boson? Why is it important? And how was it discovered? In this engaging and informative book Caltech physicist Sean Carroll sheds light on all these aspects of the Higgs discovery.
Carroll's book can be roughly divided into three parts. In the first part, after giving us a brief overview of particle physics describing relativity, quantum mechanics, the Standard Model and the discovery of the twelve elementary particles that make up the universe, Carroll plunges into a description of the giant particle accelerators that have made possible our understanding of nature's fundamental building blocks. Personally I found this part most enjoyable, since it's a little more accessible than the theoretical part. Carroll tells us about the stupendous engineering challenges involved in the building of the LHC and takes us on a nice little tour of its interior. There's all kinds of fascinating and amusing stuff here; the lead tungstate crystals in the detectors that took ten years to grow, the earlier particle accelerator whose workings were affected by the moon's tides, the baguette dropped by a bird that temporarily created electrical problems, the helium "explosion" caused by high voltage that crippled the machine for months, the physicist whose face was exposed to an intense beam of protons and who still escaped relatively unscathed. The sheer size and complexity of the ten-thousand pound detectors - ATLAS and CMS - beggar belief and the smooth functioning of these hunks of metal, plastic and electronics is a resounding tribute to human ingenuity and collaboration. Carroll is very good at describing the structure and function of the marvelous machines that made the Higgs possible and again confirms the fact that the best science involves both great intellectual ideas and world-class engineering. Many of the LHC's components as well as the principal players are illustrated in color photographs in the center of the book.
Carroll also gives us a lucid account of the statistical methods and data collection techniques used to confirm the discovery of particles. The sheer amount of data collected by the LHC is staggering; as Carroll puts it, enough to fill about a thousand terabyte hard-drives per second. He does a good job detailing the great difficulty of collecting the data from an incredibly complex dance of particle collisions and most importantly, of separating the signal from the noise. He tells us about the almost mythical "5-sigma" threshold, essentially a very stringent statistical test that allows you to claim a "discovery" of a new particle. In July 2012, data from both the ATLAS and CMS detectors was combined together to claim a 5-sigma threshold. Carroll who was in the audience when the discovery was announced captures well the excitement in Geneva and around the world as an intensely international collaboration of more than three thousand LHC-related scientists tuned in to hear the groundbreaking news. This was definitely the discovery of a lifetime, and Peter Higgs was in the audience to hear about it. Yet Carroll drives home the point that statistics is not everything, and illustrates this through the cautionary tale of the discovery of "faster-than-light" neutrinos which, although statistically significant, turned out to be incorrect.
The second part of the book gives us the theoretical basis of the Higgs boson. To Carroll's credit, he spends a fair amount of time dispelling the simplistic belief that the "Higgs boson gives everything mass" and does a pretty good job leading us through the subtleties of what's called the "Higgs field" and exactly how it's relevant to particles masses and interactions. He also addresses the common misunderstanding that most of the mass of an everyday object comes from the Higgs. It doesn't; it comes from the strong interactions and therefore won't suddenly disappear if the Higgs boson were to hypothetically vanish. Along the way Carroll explains important concepts like spontaneous symmetry breaking and Feynman diagrams which are integral to understanding the Higgs mechanism. The last part of the book also has interesting discussions on the potential implications of the Higgs for understanding dark matter, dark energy and the Big Bang. And an amusing chapter lays to rest the slightly paranoid "end-of-world" scenarios postulated before the LHC went online. This same chapter also takes a thoughtful look at the public promotion of science and addresses the role of blogs and other media which communicate science, often correctly but sometimes prematurely. Carroll makes us appreciate the fact that scientists have to tread a fine line in being accurate while still not giving the media an opportunity to sensationalize their findings.
Finally in the third part, Carroll sheds light on the human aspect of science. Part of this is in the earlier chapters where he details the political jockeying and the clash of personalities that was involved in the cancellation of the high-stakes Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) project during the 90s. The fact is that these days even the most fundamental curiosity-driven research can involve billion-dollar equipment like the LHC. Carroll wonders whether governments around the world will now support these increasingly expensive endeavors, especially during times of recession, but also underscores the importance of this research for human creativity and unexpected practical spinoffs (like the World Wide Web). The human aspect of science is also revealed in a separate chapter that among other things asks who would get the Nobel Prize for the discovery. There is no doubt that somebody should get it (and almost universal consensus that Higgs should be included), but the history that Carroll describes makes it clear that at least six people came up with various parts of the idea within a narrow time frame. And the experimentalists seem to deserve it as much as the theoreticians. One thing is certain; any Nobel Prize for the Higgs is going to be at least somewhat controversial.
In general I greatly enjoyed reading "The Particle at the End of the Universe". It's engaging and an easy read and would complement similar other volumes like Ian Sample's "Massive" (which focuses more on the human side) and Frank Close's "The Infinity Puzzle" (which is heavier on the science). Carroll is a pleasant, informative, patient and humorous guide on our tour of the LHC and the Higgs. He is also measured and tends to temper the enthusiasm of discovery with realism; for instance he makes it clear that the discovery of the Higgs still leaves many questions unanswered, and it has no impact on other outstanding scientific problems like discovering cancer drugs or understanding the economy. What Carroll does manage to communicate is the deep satisfaction of discovery, the thrill of the chase and the astonishing achievements that human imagination and skill can make possible.
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Showing 1-7 of 7 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Nov 14, 2012 12:10:19 AM PST
Chosenbygrace Notworks says:
Posted on Nov 14, 2012 3:26:34 PM PST
Geoffrey Kidd says:
I would say the Higgs wasn't so much "discovered" (Higgs did that with his math), but "confirmed." There was a recent article in "New Scientist" which mentioned that the mass of the Higgs may be causing headaches for theoretical physicists, since it sets stringent limits on where physical theory can go from here. I'm glad this isn't so much the end of a story as the beginning of more of them.
Thank you for your comment.
In reply to an earlier post on Dec 29, 2012 6:20:47 AM PST
[Deleted by the author on Dec 29, 2012 6:21:43 AM PST]
Posted on Dec 30, 2012 10:13:22 PM PST
Dusty Rhodes says:
Thank you for a wonderful and informative review. Your concluding sentence about the "deep satisaction of discovery" is both inspiring and joyous.
Posted on Jan 4, 2013 11:45:17 AM PST
Nathan Davis says:
First off, absolutely great review. I have been looking for a new book for awhile now and I'll likely be picking this book up over the weekend.
Second, Since someone has to be that guy;... NNNNNNNNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO the higgs boson was not discovered! CERN has confirmed that they have discovered a new particle, that is true. CERN has not yet however confirmed that the new particle that has been discovered is in fact a boson particle (last i heard they were only 99.99% sure). Once they confirm that the new particle is a boson they can then work on if this particle is the ever elusive higgs boson particle.
I will grant that the reason that everyone is saying that the higgs boson has been discovered, is because in all likelyhood it has been. However as of Jan 4th 2013, CERN has not yet confirmed they have discovered the higgs boson particle. They have only confirmed that they have discovered a particle that has all the characteristics of the higgs boson, but its still too early for CERN to make the announcement that the Higgs boson has been discovered.
In reply to an earlier post on Jan 20, 2013 5:36:03 PM PST
Joshua Allen says:
Thank you for pointing this out. This was my understanding also, that things had not been confirmed and that no announcement of such had been made. Since I am not always up on my reading and am not a scientist, I thought I had missed something...
Posted on Jan 30, 2014 3:52:08 PM PST
Aniko C. Mattison says:
very very good revue. Thank you.
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