Skip to main content

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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Ancestral Night (SF) - Elizabeth Bear *****

Only a couple of weeks ago, reviewing a 1960s SF book, I bemoaned the fact that science fiction novels of ideas are less common now. Although it is correctly labelled a space opera, Ancestral Night delivers ideas with aplomb.

Let's deal with the space opera aspect first. Elizabeth Bear provides some excellent adventure scenes in space, and we've the usual mix of huge spaceships and interesting aliens. Main character Haimey Dz is an engineer on a ship that salvages wrecks - but, as we gradually discover - she also has a forgotten past. A major feature of the storyline (one that seems to link to the medieval idea of the lost wisdom of the past) is ancient technology from a long-dead race with capabilities, notably manipulating spacetime mentally (Bear has yet to point out that the travel technologies used here could manipulate time as well as space), which fit well with Arthur C. Clarke's magic definition.

I particularly liked the (surely intentional) nods to the much-misse…

The Creativity Code - Marcus du Sautoy *****

At first glance this might just be another 'What AI is good at and not so good at' title. And in a way, it is. But, wow, what a brilliant book! Marcus du Sautoy takes us on a tour of what artificial intelligence has achieved (and possibly can in the future achieve) in a range of fields from his own of mathematics, through game playing, music, art and more.

After a little discussion of what creativity is, we start off with the now very familiar story of DeepMind's AlphaGo and its astonishing ability to take on the hugely challenging game of Go. Even though I've read about this many times before, du Sautoy, as a Go player and mathematician, gives a real feel for why this was such a triumph - and so shocking. Not surprisingly he is also wonderful on what mathematicians actually do, how computers have helped them to date and how they have the potential to do far more in the future. After all, mathematics is by far the closest science to game playing, as it has strict rule…

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…