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How to find a Higgs boson

12 November 2020

How to find a Higgs boson – and other big mysteries in the world of the very small, by Ivo van Vulpen, Yale

How to Find a Higgs Boson

Finding Higgs bosons can seem esoteric to the uninitiated. The spouse of a colleague of mine has such trouble describing what their partner does that they read from a card in the event that they are questioned on the subject. Do you experience similar difficulties in describing what you do to loved ones? If so, then Ivo van Vulpen’s book How to find a Higgs boson may provide you with an ideal gift opportunity.

Readers will feel like they are talking physics over a drink with van Vulpen, who is a lecturer at the University of Amsterdam and a member of the ATLAS collaboration. Originally published as De melodie van de natuur, the book’s Dutch origins are unmistakable. We read about Hans Lippershey’s lenses, Antonie van Leeuwenhoeck’s microbiology, Antonius van den Broek’s association of charge with the number of electrons in an atom, and even Erik Verlinde’s theory of gravity as an emergent entropic force. Though the Higgs is dangled at the end of chapters as a carrot to get the reader to keep reading, van Vulpen’s text isn’t an airy pamphlet cashing in on the 2012 discovery, but a realistic representation of what it’s like to be a particle physicist. When he counsels budding scientists to equip themselves better than the North Pole explorer who sets out with a Hugo Boss suit, a cheese slicer and a bicycle, he tells us as much about himself as about what it’s like to be a physicist.

Van Vulpen is a truth teller who isn’t afraid to dent the romantic image of serene progress orchestrated by a parade of geniuses. 9999 out of every 10,000 predictions from “formula whisperers” (theorists) turn out to be complete hogwash, he writes, in the English translation by David McKay. Sociological realities such as “mixed CMS–ATLAS” couples temper the physics, which is unabashedly challenging and unvarnished. The book boasts a particularly lucid and intelligible description of particle detectors for the general reader, and has a nice focus on applications. Particle accelerators are discussed in relation to the “colour X-rays” of the Medipix project. Spin in the context of MRI. Radioactivity with reference to locating blocked arteries. Antimatter in the context of PET scans. Key ideas are brought to life in cartoons by Serena Oggero, formerly of the LHCb collaboration.

The weak interaction is like a dog on an attometre-long chain.

Attentive readers will occasionally be frustrated. For example, despite a stated aim of the book being to fight “formulaphobia”, Bohr’s famous recipe for energy levels lacks the crucial minus sign just a few lines before a listing of –3.6 eV (as opposed to –13.6 eV) for the energy of the ground state. Van Vulpen compares the beauty seen by physicists in equations to the beauty glimpsed by musicians as they read sheet music, but then prints Einstein’s field equations with half the tensor indices missing. But to quibble about typos in the English translation would be to miss the point of the book, which is to allow readers “to impress friends over a drink,” and talk physics “next time you’re in a bar”. Van Vulpen’s writing is always entertaining, but never condescending. Filled with amusing but perceptive one-liners, the book is perfectly calibrated for readers who don’t usually enjoy science. Life in a civilisation that evolved before supernovas would have no cutlery, he observes. Neutrinos are the David Bowie of particles. The weak interaction is like a dog on an attometre-long chain.

This book could be the perfect gift for a curious spouse. But beware: fielding questions on the excellent last chapter, which takes in supersymmetry, SO(10), and millimetre-scale extra dimensions, may require some revision.

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