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Higgs Discovery: The Power of Empty Space Paperback – 9 Aug 2012

3.7 out of 5 stars 21 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 64 pages
  • Publisher: Bodley Head (9 Aug. 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1847922570
  • ISBN-13: 978-1847922571
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 0.4 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 212,150 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Review

"A lucid, deft and engaging summation of dogged determination and “heroic engineering”" (Nature)

Book Description

What is the Higgs boson? And where will its discovery lead? Renowned physicist Lisa Randall explains this landmark event in modern science and its startlingly beautiful implications.

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Lisa Randall is a theoretical physicist, specialising in particle physics and cosmology, from the university of Harvard USA. Her earlier books Knocking On Heaven's Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World and Warped Passages: Unravelling the Universe's Hidden Dimensions (Penguin Press Science) are top quality popular science writing with well deserved high ratings on Amazon.

For me this latest book is a bit of a disappointment. The writing is still well informed, as one would expect, but gives the distinct impression of being thrown together in a rush - a rapid response to the unexpectedly early announcement of the discovery of the Higgs Boson at the CERN LHC.

A substantial later part of the book, which explains the significance of the Higgs boson and Higgs field, to put into retrospective context the earlier pages describing her reaction to events at CERN, is simply copied from her other books. To be fair, she points this out at the beginning.

Her account of first hearing the news while on holiday in Greece is amusing and, like most of the book, her conversational style makes easy reading. I particularly like her clear explanation that, since the Higgs field generates particle masses, the strength of the coupling of the Higgs Boson to those particles must be bigger when they are more massive, and that this has consequences for both the creation (by the LHC) and decay (to be detected by experiment) of the Higgs Boson.
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Disappointing is my verdict on this book. I selected it on the basis of a review in a learned journal that is obviously above my intellectual comfort level. I had expected a short resume of the position of the Higgs in the particle physics firmament and some sort of timescale on its discovery. I may have read those things but if so, it was not that clear.
What I did learn was that the `Higgs' is actually three entities all carrying that name: the Mechanism, the Field and the Particle. It was emphasised how the `discovery' is not such a precise moment. The experiments at CERN continued for a some time with the results analysed in minute detail until a recognisable pattern emerged from the mass of data. When this discontinuity was sufficiently prominent and its characteristics closely aligned with theoretical expectations, the scientists allowed themselves to go public and announce their discovery.
Dr Randall is clearly an enthusiast. She bubbles over with joy about the Higgs discovery and I'm a little sad that I was unable to share her fun. The problem lay in my inadequacy in particle physics. She provided a chapter on how the Higgs is recognised by its decay characteristics. Some of these seemed contradictory. Perhaps they are. After all particle physics is full of enigmas.
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It's difficult to know who this book by Lisa Randall is aimed at. I would think its target audience is people who are scientifically literate but are not physicists, least of all particle physicists. After all, if it was directed at physicists it would be far more mathematical. Regrettably, if the intended audience really is scientifically literate. non-physicists, then I feel it misses the mark by a mile. I doubt that anyone who was not a physicist would understand much of this book. I had already read and enjoyed, despite the tough going, Sean Carroll's account of the Higgs boson ("The Particle at the End of the Universe") but even with this background I could barely make head or tail of much of the content of Randall's book.

The book shows every sign of being put together in a hurry, maybe so as to publish something ahead of the competition. This is evident from the inclusion of a chapter from another of Randall's books ("Knocking on Heaven's Door"), this added chapter accounting for approaching 40% of the total book. This tactic results in a disjointed story to the extent that ideally the borrowed chapter, essential to the understanding of the whole, needs to be read before the new text. It might have been better if the author had integrated the new with the old.

I also felt that Randall doesn't do a thorough job of explaining what's meant by symmetry in the context of particle physics. This is crucial to understanding the Higgs mechanism but she seems to assume that readers are already fairly familiar with this concept.

However, in her defence, I accept that explaining the Higgs mechanism to non-physicists, such as me, is extremely challenging - and perhaps nigh on impossible!
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As other reviewers mentioned, this micro-booklet seems to be a collection of what could be news headlines, blog posts and some personal thoughts around the subject. My expectation was to get an introduction to the subject which could be light but logical/structured, as a starting point for further reading. For example, from the very first pages the author delves into how to find hints of the boson by the way it decays, and then here and there mentions that this thing we are looking for gives mass to particles. In my view this is an upside down exposition for which in my university days I would have been failed at Physics I. Maybe it's me being stuck in needing to first know the Why, and only then be ready to dig into the How.
I would have given 0 stars to be fair if it wasn't for the one bit of information I got out of it, which is that Peter Higgs attended the same school as Paul Dirac in Bristol, which happens to be a city very dear to me.
The only way these printed pages can be defined is a wrapper to advertise her other books, which of course I am now not that keen to spend my money on. Not worth half its price.
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