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 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Magicians - Marcus Chown *****

The title may seem an odd one for a popular science book, but it refers to what Chown describes as ‘the central magic of science: its ability to predict the existence of things previously undreamt of which, when people went out and looked for them, turned out to actually exist in the real universe’. That may be true of all branches of science, but physics – which is what the book is about – is a special case, because its theories are rooted in mathematical equations rather than words. This makes the matter completely black-and-white: if the equations predict something you had no inkling of, then either the maths is wrong, or that thing really does exist. This book describes some remarkable instances where the maths was right.

Actually, I’m not sure the title is strictly accurate. It’s true that it centres on people – both the theoreticians who came up with the predictions and the experimentalists who proved them right – but in most cases the ‘magic’ is something the human players simpl…

Infinity Plus: Quintet (SF) - Keith Brooke (Ed.) ****

When I was younger there was nothing I liked better than a good, deep, dark (frankly, often downright miserable) science fiction story, and this collection delivers excellent modern examples that would have fit easily into a thoughtful if downbeat 70s collection such as the 'New Writing in SF' or the Interzone magazine of the day (one was actually first published in Interzone, in 1987 - the rest date between 1989 and 2010).

If I'm honest, I prefer more upbeat fiction now, but that doesn't stop me appreciating the quality of these five stories, put together by the SF website and publisher Infinity Plus. I've rarely seen a better contradiction of Margaret Atwood's putdown of science fiction as being limited to 'talking squids in outer space.' What we have here is pure character-driven storytelling with not a mention of space, spaceships, ray guns or aliens. It's the inner world, not the outer trappings of sci fi tropes that interest these writers.

On…

Until the End of Time: Brian Greene ***

Things start well with this latest title from Brian Greene: after a bit of introductory woffle we get into an interesting introduction to entropy. As always with Greene's writing, this is readable, chatty and full of little side facts and stories. Unfortunately, for me, the book then suffers something of an increase in entropy itself as on the whole it then veers more into philosophy and the soft sciences than Greene's usual physics and cosmology.

So, we get chapters on consciousness, language, belief and religion, instinct and creativity, duration and impermanence, the ends of time and, most cringe-making as a title, 'the nobility of being'. Unlike the dazzling scientific presentation I expect, this mostly comes across as fairly shallow amateur philosophising.

Of course it's perfectly possible to write good science books on, say, consciousness or language - but though Greene touches on the science, there far too much that's more hand-waving. And good though he i…