Summer is the season of conferences for physicists with holidays squeezed in where possible. For those with time for reading something other than drafts of their latest papers and preprints with new results, this Bookshelf features a few books for more relxed reading – or for recommending to family and friends while the hard work continues.
The Particle at the End of the Universe
By Sean Carroll
In his latest book, Sean Carroll, author of the brilliant From Eternity to Here, has produced an accessible read aimed at the layperson interested in an up-to-date account of the state of particle physics and, in particular, the discovery of the Higgs boson. Carroll is well placed to offer the reader an in-depth view of the world of particle physics, being close enough to give a personal account yet maintaining the perspective of an onlooker. As a result he is a superb advocate of the case for “Big Science”, which he demonstrates to full effect in both the opening and closing chapters of the book, beginning with several snapshots of physicists celebrating the milestones that led up to the announcement of the major discovery at CERN on 4 July 2012.
By interweaving the scientific concepts with chapters on historical, social and political aspects of particle physics, Carroll dilutes the hard bits with human interest, appealing to the widest possible audience. He conveys the central importance of the Higgs discovery before going into the theory in any detail, so that we get an idea of what the fuss is about. He explains that the particle at the end of the universe is not a reference to the Higgs boson’s location in space or time but rather its location in our understanding, as the final piece of the Standard Model. This marks the end of the journey to describe our everyday surroundings and the beginning of a new era of full discovery. The theme is developed further when Carroll gets into his stride with dark matter, supersymmetry and string theory, demonstrating how the Higgs particle can act as a portal for exploring as yet unreachable phenomena.
True to the headline-grabbing comments of intrigue and drama in high-energy physics on the cover, the book recounts the chequered history of accelerators: the engineering challenges and the agonies of having your machine switched off when a major discovery could be just around the corner; or the frustrations of not getting the machine built at all, as with the Superconducting Super Collider. In this way, the account does justice to the magnitude and achievements of the LHC and its experiments.
What is meant by the “discovery” of a particle is also explained clearly, together with the issues concerning the timing and control of such announcements, especially given the high level of public interest. Concerning the difficulties of apportioning credit, Carroll proposes that scientific collaborations should be allowed to win the Nobel prize and that “Whoever gets that rule change implemented might deserve the Nobel Peace Prize”.
A couple of errors should be mentioned: the Higgs boson is repeatedly credited with distinguishing the electron from the neutrino and the up quark from the down, etc. The important qualification that this statement holds true only for the left-handed components of these particles is mentioned only latterly. Also, there is an unfortunate sign error in the diagram of Fleming’s left-hand rule – not a big deal in itself but enough to undermine confidence in the book for some readers, perhaps giving the impression that it has been rushed into print.
With this book Carroll consolidates his position as an exceptionally talented writer of difficult physics concepts for the layperson. He weaves together fascinating facts, amusing anecdotes and insightful analogies. In storyteller style, with colourful characters and thrilling plots, he propels the reader along the journey that particle physics has made in our lifetime. The layperson can empathize with the emotional highs and lows of research, the patience and tenacity required to bring a project like the LHC to completion and the laudable level of co-operation that the particle-physics community demonstrates to other large and complex organizations – to quote: “If only the United Nations could work like CERN, the world would be a better place.”
• Theresa Harrison, Ilmington.
Materia Strana (Strange Matter)
By J J Gómez Cadenas, translated from the original Materia Extraña, published by Espasa Calpe
CERN has attracted the attention of a number of writers as a stage for their thrillers and in most cases they have been assisted on the scientific background by friends or by interviews with key CERN scientists. In Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons, CERN’s science portfolio was an excuse for writing a science-fiction novel in which special effects overshadow reality to create shocking situations. Bruno Arpaia’s L’Energia del Vuoto (Vacuum’s Energy) was more respectful of CERN’s science, providing detailed scientific descriptions but with the risk of breaking the rhythm of the novel (CERN Courier December 2011 p59 ). By contrast, J J Gómez Cadenas has been gifted with a rare combination of talents: he is a good writer and a professional particle physicist ( CERN Courier March 2013 p23). As a result, Materia Strana is a powerful thriller based on an almost realistic scientific case that fits well with an engaging narration.
The possible existence of stable strange matter in the universe was put forward by Edward Witten and independently by Álvaro De Rújula and Sheldon Glashow in 1984. Some neutron stars could, indeed, be strange stars. The possibility that high-energy ion–ion collisions could create chunks of strange matter that would have a tendency to grow exponentially in size was debated when the Relativistic Heavy-Ion Collider started operating in the US. The probability of this happening has been calculated to be negligibly low but in Materia Strana it is assumed to be much higher – dangerously high for a high-luminosity, ion–ion LHC at CERN.
This is the main theme around which a truly international thriller develops involving Irene, the gifted young theoretician with Iranian roots and Héctor, an amazing experimental physicist from the US with multiple backgrounds as a boxer, soldier and scientist, who becomes involved in a highly dangerous mission in Iran – as well as with Irene. There is also Friedrich, the powerful but unscrupulous head of the large experiment that is likely to bring him the Nobel prize; Helena, the hyper-efficient, fighting and bright director-general of CERN; and Boiko, a natural-born killer, who escaped to Geneva from the horrors of Chernobyl and Grozny. The deadly fight between Hector and Boiko has the intensity of the pages of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. Intermixed with dreams and ghosts crossing the border between life and death, these stories provide the texture for a decent thriller where good wins eventually over evil, although with a heavy toll.
• Roberto Battison, University of Trento.
Strong in the Rain
By Lucy Birmingham and David McNeil
Hardback: £17.99 $27.00
Some dates will remain in the public consciousness forever, given their cultural impact. Personally, these would include 11 September 2001 (the attacks on the twin towers in New York), 7 July 2005 (the London Underground bombings) and 11 November (Armistice Day, commemorating the end of the First World War).
On 11 March 2011 the Tohoku earthquake occurred approximately 70 km off the coast of Japan. It was the most powerful earthquake ever to hit Japan and the fifth most powerful to be recorded since records began in 1900. The earthquake triggered powerful tsunami waves that reached heights of up to 40 m. The Japanese National Police Agency subsequently confirmed 15,883 deaths, ensuring that this date will live long in the Japanese cultural memory.
Strong in the Rain brings together six stories from people affected by the tragic events associated with the earthquake/tsunami on 11 March. The book is described as “part history, part science” and the authors use the experiences of the six people in the book, in addition to their own, to paint a tale of heroes and villains.
The book gets off to a slow start but the reading becomes gripping once the stories move on to the tales of the six central protagonists. It delves into the Japanese cultural strengths and weaknesses in equal measure, from the lack of information provided regarding the nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi to the best qualities of the Japanese spirit and character, which are embodied in the town mayor who changes press coverage of the nuclear meltdown with a heartfelt plea uploaded to YouTube.
Living somewhere like the UK it is hard to picture the epic scale of this disaster but the authors weave between the stories of the protagonists to make you feel like you were there. The book manages to be both heart-breaking and uplifting in equal measure and the title Strong in the Rain – taken from a famous Japanese poem – becomes an apt description of the events that unfold.
Some books portraying historical events have the potential to become dated but I believe that Strong in the Rain will stand up well to the test of time. This is mainly because of the human stories within the book that leave you questioning how you might have behaved under similar stress. What would you leave and who would you save? What does it take to be a hero? It also leaves you thinking how important learning from the past is to save us all in the future. I would heartily recommend this book and will be lending it to all of my friends.
• Steve Pritchard, University of the West of England.