Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Collider – Paul Halpern ****

The Large Hadron Collider at CERN is set to give us deep insights into the nature of matter and the origins of the universe. It could provide evidence of extra dimensions, and give us an idea of whether string theorists are on the right track. This is fascinating stuff, and it is what Paul Halpern aims to explain in Collider, after first giving us a history of high energy physics and particle accelerators.
I wasn’t very optimistic about the book at first. It jumps straight into the Higgs mechanism and spontaneous symmetry breaking without explaining these concepts in much detail for the layperson. I was a little worried the book was going to turn out to be over-technical, and only fully understandable to those with a physics degree. Luckily, this wasn’t the case at all, and when the book gets on to talking about the LHC in detail, and how it works and what it will be looking for, the concepts are fleshed out clearly and simply. In fact, Halpern has a knack of explaining tricky ideas well for the general reader in the minimum of words. Where something isn’t entirely clear, the book still leaves the reader with a fairly good grasp of what’s being discussed.
Overall, the science of the LHC is covered quite well, and there’s an entertaining section on ‘Citizens Against the Large Hadron Collider’, a group concerned about world destroying scenarios at CERN, in which Halpern explains why there’s nothing to worry about. The most readable parts of the book, however, are in the middle, where it covers earlier high energy research and the people involved.
The best chapter is on the first particle accelerators, and contains a significant amount of biographical information about Ernest Rutherford, Ernest Walton, John Cockcroft, Ernest Lawrence, and Rolf Wideroe, someone I knew little about beforehand. Wideroe was a Norwegian engineer whose research provided a lot of the impetus for Rutherford’s team at the Canvendish Laboratory in Cambridge to build the linear accelerator they used to split the nucleus of lithium. He also inspired Lawrence to build the first cyclotron, a circular accelerator. Another highlight, which again shows the book is rather better on history and surrounding issues, is the account of what happened to the Superconducting Super Collider, intended for Texas but eventually never completed. The section contains a number of lessons to be borne in mind when future, similar projects are planned.
There’s one small point. The book costs £19.00 in the shops, which I think is a bit much; £15.00 would be more appropriate. Overall, though, this is an interesting book, great for anyone wanting to know what could happen at the LHC over the coming years and the context in which the project has been developed. This is definitely a solid four star book, and I got a lot from it.
Paperback:  
Review by Matt Chorley

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