10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars
A good read, 4 July 2010
This book tells the tale of advanced research in particle physics over the last hundred years and a little bit more. It is clear, entertaining and quite a quick read. Briefly it delves into the advances made by James Clerk Maxwell, Einstein and other famous scientists and then provides us with a breathless whistle-stop tour of the personalities involved more recently - the collaborations, the friendships, the arguments and the rivalries, in the build up to the construction, dramatic accidents and eventual operation of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) by the CERN organisation near Geneva.
The account gives indications that it was written in a great hurry. Perhaps that is inevitable. Although the story is perhaps a little premature because the machine has not been run yet at full power and the discovery that everyone in the field is waiting for has not yet been made (or discounted), the story is nevertheless "HOT" because of the intense media speculation which has surrounded it. No doubt, if that much sought the discovery (of the Higgs Boson) is made in the next few years (or is not made) Sample will give us a second addition with an addendum to bring the tale up to date.
In his haste to rush us through the list of participants, Sample includes a number of anecdotal snippets - the colour of a scientist's car, where another spent a wet camping holiday, yet another's taste in clothing. These snippets are thrown in abruptly and give the narrative a curiously disjointed feel. More controlled is his account of the political decisions which dictated the way the USA and the co-operative European efforts leap-frogged each other in a race to be the first to make these prestigious discoveries. He also explains well how the focus of the research, as it was presented to the decision makers, was narrowed and oversimplified for the press, and became lumbered with that name "The God Particle" to the distaste of most of the scientists involved.
In a very interesting chapter Sample describes the various doom-laden prophecies concerning the possible creation of Earth-eating black holes, strangelets which might alter the structure of the universe and so on. I was not only interested but comforted to know that the scientists took these concerns seriously, examined them all (including some I had never been aware of) and discounted them all for what seemed to me to be very sound reasons.
I bought the book for two reasons. I read an article in the Guardian by Ian Sample (he is the
Guardian's science correspondent) which mentioned the book. Intrigued, I wanted to see if he had explained the technicalities of particle research in a way that I could understand. In the article he also discussed the issue of "hidden worlds. I have a particular interest in that topic so I want to hear more. I was disappointed on both counts. He has made a brave effort to explain the inexplicable but he has not really succeeded - and I suppose that is inevitable. This is a topic so deeply immersed in complicated mathematics that is virtually impenetrable to all non-mathematicians (and that group, I suspect, includes Ian sample himself). The analogies he uses in an attempt to explain things, sound to me as though they are being passed on from the horse's mount, directly to us, without much alteration and without any added comprehension.
On the issue of "hidden worlds" and the related topic of "reality" he does briefly mention a discussion between a very young Peter Higgs and an equally young friend, on how real are the mental models we develop based on our perceptions. Sample, however, does not expand. He returns to the topic only (and again briefly) in the final chapter. I wanted to know what Peter Higgs currently thinks about the issue. That is something I think non-mathematicians can understand and about which they can make a contribution. In other branches of science it is common and convenient to regard the mental world of our theories and the external reality we observe with our eyes and ears etc. as being two distinct things. But in the field of particle physics and quantum mechanics, the two overlap to such an extent that we should be prepared to sit back a little and think again about what we really mean when we say the something "exists". In a book of my own (Reasoning Beyond Reason) I postulated the "existence" (note the cautionary quotation marks) of two extra forces rather like gravity in classical Newtonian Theory. These two forces are equal and opposite. One pulls and the other pushes and they have equal strength. So even although both could be very much stronger than the gravity we know about, the effects they have cancel each other out and so there is no way whatever, they we could ever detect their presence. In what sense of the word, therefore, is it appropriate to talk about the "existence" or even the "possible existence" of these forces? When Sample (and I presume the physicists he spoke to) talk about particles "popping in an out of existence" I am left wondering if the meaning of the word "existence" is being stretched beyond its elastic limit. What exactly is the difference between non-existence and a form of existence which can never ever be detected in anyway whatsoever?