Skip to main content

The God Particle – Leon M. Lederman & Dick Teresi ****

 I have something of an embarrassing confession to make. When I titled my book on quantum entanglement The God Effect, not only had I not read Leon Lederman and Dick Teresi’s book, I had never even heard of it. I had, however, seen the hypothetical particle the Higgs boson referred to as ‘the god particle’ in the press, and it was this term that inspired my title.

The hook that The God Particle hangs on is this yet-to-be-confirmed particle that may be responsible for the mass of the other, more familiar particles, and it does give some information about it at the end, but this book is much, much more. Actually almost too much more. It is densely packed with information – you come out of the end feeling like you’ve been on an undergraduate course without the equations, though to be fair, it’s a very good undergraduate course, one of those where you think you are really lucky because the lecturer is witty and fun to listen to, even when you don’t quite follow what he’s talking about.

What The God Particle will give you is a superb introduction to the way the particles that make up matter were gradually broken down and understood, and how the “standard model” came into being. I have never seen another description that gives such great insights – helped, no doubt because Lederman was in there getting his hands dirty, and has the Nobel prize to prove it.
I felt I had to keep reading this book, even though it is really rather over-long. Lederman and Teresi’s description of all the different accelerators in the middle of the book becomes a little tedious after a while, but there is always enough in there to keep you interested, and there’s no doubt that you get a feel for big science from the coal face.
The book is now quite old – written in 1993 – but the historical aspects of its content are unchanged by this, as is much of the particle physics. It is, perhaps unfortunate that in his national pride, Lederman makes a big thing of the the Superconducting Super Collider at Waxahachie in Texas, even showing a timeline from Democritus’s Miletus (where the atom was first postulated) running all the way through via Burger King (there’s always humour here) to Waxahachie. It’s unfortunate because after the book was written and after Lederman’s hilarious efforts to get a video explaining the need for the accelerator dumbed down enough for Ronald Regan to understand it, the project was cancelled, leaving CERN in Europe to take over the lead (though at the time of writing, still not being there on the Higgs boson). There is also an excruciatingly bad bit of prediction of how things will be different in the laboratory of 2020, not exactly that far ahead any more – but these can be forgiven. The God Particle is an essential for anyone who wants to understand modern particle physics and where it has come from.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…