*An executive summary of this book is now available at the website newbooksinbrief dot wordpress dot com.
Up until very recently, news out of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) regarding the progress of the new Large Hadron Collider (LHC) had been slow in coming, and nary a major discovery had been announced. On July 4th, though, all of that changed. As on that day CERN announced the discovery of nothing less than the Higgs boson, the 'God particle'.
The potential discovery of the Higgs boson had been one of the principal reasons why physicists were so excited about the LHC; and therefore, within the scientific community the announcement was cause for a major celebration indeed. For most of the general public, however, while the announcement was certainly intriguing, there were many basic questions yet to be answered: Just what was the Higgs boson, and why had it been labeled the God particle? Why were physicists expecting to find it, and what did the discovery really mean? Adequately answering these questions was more than what journalists were able to do in their compressed news segments and newspaper articles--and, besides this, it was a task that many journalists were not up to regardless.
Jim Baggott's new book 'Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the 'God Particle'' is meant to remedy this situation and provide the necessary context that the general public needs in order to understand the discovery of the Higgs boson and what it all means.
With impressive clarity, Baggott first takes us through the history of the development of the Standard Model of particle physics (which theory the Higgs boson is a part). He begins with the discovery that atoms are made up of the still more elementary particles of electrons, protons and neutrons. And then takes us through the discovery of the still more fundamental particles of quarks, leptons and bosons, and the 4 fundamental forces that govern these particles: gravity, the electromagnetic force, the weak nuclear force, and the strong nuclear force.
At every step of the way, Baggott is sure to explain what difficulties confronted the understanding of particle physics that was current at the time, what theoretical models were developed to overcome these difficulties, and the empirical evidence that was used to establish which theoretical model won the day. For instance, and of crucial importance here, is that--after learning of the 3 types of elementary particles, and the 4 basic forces--we learn that there was a problem with the then-current theory regarding the masses of the elementary particles--in that the 4 forces alone were simply unable to account for it. In order to overcome this difficulty, some physicists postulated that there must be a charged field pervading space, since such a field appeared to be the only appealing way to solve the mass mystery. This field was called the Higgs field.
The problem was that there was as yet no empirical evidence that the Higgs field actually exists. What physicists did think, though, was that if it did exist, it would imply the existence of a certain type of boson particle, dubbed the Higgs boson. What this meant is that if physicists could find the Higgs boson, they would have empirical evidence that the Higgs field does in fact exist, and the problem regarding the masses of elementary particles would be adequately solved. On July 4th, it was the discovery of this very particle that was announced, and Baggott takes us behind the scenes at the LHC to explain just what went into the discovery.
While the discovery of the Higgs boson solved one major problem with the Standard Model, there are a few others that have yet to be solved--including the hierarchy problem, and the problem of explaining gravity--and Baggott does touch on these issues as well.
Amazing science, wonderfully told. A full executive summary of the book is available at the website newbooksinbrief dot wordpress dot com; a podcast discussion of the book will be available soon.