The Missing Particle that Sparked the Greatest Hunt in Science
Basic Books 2010
You’ve probably read about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). It’s the largest (17 miles around!), most expensive (9 billion dollars!) scientific instrument in history. What’s it do? It accelerates beams of tiny particles (protons) to nearly the speed of light and then smashes them into one another. That’s cool, you say, but why? Well, the simple answer is this: it was built to test the validity of the way most physicists understand the origins and essence of everything, that is, the “standard model.”
You see, the standard model has a big gap in it: it can’t explain why certain essential particles have mass. In the 1960s, however, a group of theoretical physicists proposed an answer. These massive particles, they said, were bathed in a dense, universal field of other particles, now called “Higgs bosons.” The field gives them mass. To draw an analogy (always a dangerous thing to do in physics…), particles like protons have mass for the same reason straws stand up in milkshakes–they are “packed in,” so to say. The trouble, to continue this awkward analogy, is that no one has ever “seen” the milkshake. The scientists working at the LHC are trying to find it. If they do, the standard model remains standard and Nobel Prizes all ’round. If not, well, back to the drawing board.
Ian Sample does a masterful job of telling the tale of the quest for the Higgs boson (aka the “God particle”) in his new book Massive: The Missing Particle that Sparked the Greatest Hunt in Science (Basic Books, 2010). You don’t need to know a thing about physics (though the author clearly does) to enjoy it. Sample has a talent for explaining things that are often obscured by mathematics (a kind of crutch, I think, for many scientists) in straightforward English prose. This skill, combined with the fact that Sample is a great storyteller with a great story to tell, make Massive an excellent read. You may not have liked science in school, but trust me when I say you’ll very much enjoy the history of science in the hands of Ian Sample.
Please become a fan of “New Books in History” on Facebook if you haven’t already.