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A remarkable insight into the role of symmetry in modern particle physics
on 28 May 2015
There are plenty of books about the hunt for the Higgs boson, most notably Jim Baggott's excellent Higgs, so at first sight, Higgs Force, might seem to be more of the same, but in a couple of areas it is unparalleled in anything I've read in the field.
Where Higgs is very much the story of the hunt with a bit of physics thrown in, Higgs Force takes us on a journey through our developing understanding of the nature of the components of the universe, putting the eventual origin and significance of the Higgs field (and boson) into context.
It's not perfect, by any means, and I was on course to give it four stars rather than five. This is because it has a tendency to concentrate on the bit of the history of science that fit the picture that is being developed, and rather skims over, or even slightly distorts, those that don’t. A good example is the description of Dirac’s relativistic equation for the electron, and his prediction of the positron. The book gives the impression that Dirac stared into the fire for an evening then came up with the whole thing, which misses out a whole lot of duplication of other people’s work and near misses. But more importantly, this book is very much focused on the importance of symmetry and suggests that Dirac’s equation predicted the positron through symmetry considerations. In fact the equation predicted negative energy electrons, which brought Dirac to his outrageously bold suggestion of the negative energy sea, which is anything but symmetrical, and then to the idea that there could be holes in the negative energy sea which could be interpreted as positrons. A very different chain of thought.
However, the reason I eventually overlooked these foibles is that this book fills in the gaps that Higgs misses. In the review for that book I complained 'Like every other book I’ve read on the subject it falls down on making the linkage between the mathematics of symmetry and the particle physics comprehensible.' Although there a few bumpy moments (and I wish the author had given more detail on symmetry groups, which he never actually names) I would say that Nicholas Mee has achieved the impossible, and made a generally clear and (relatively) easy to follow explanation of the significance of symmetry and symmetry breaking that I'd say no one else has really managed. This is an extremely impressive feat. It leaves the description he gives of the various particle accelerators and the actual discover of the Higgs particle feeling rather flat - the book could easily lose a chunk of that, because by comparison it is mundane.
There's one other section where this book absolutely hits the spot: in its description of Feynman diagrams. Many books cover these, and show how they represent, say, the interaction of a photon and an electron - but Higgs Force has by far the best description of Feynman diagrams I’ve ever seen in a popular science book, properly explaining the interface between the diagram and the associated calculations, which is brilliant, and again pretty well unique.
So not a uniformly brilliant book (I also question the relevance of putting puzzles for the reader in a book like this), but where Mee does hit the spot, he achieves a remarkable ability to communicate complexity, and never more so than the fundamental aspect of symmetry and how it has shaped modern particle physics.