Skip to main content

Higgs – Jim Baggott *****

Whenever someone famous dies or there’s a major royal event you will see a book arrive in the shops with undue haste. It’s hard to imagine it wasn’t thrown together with minimum effort – and with equally minimal quality. So when I saw that Jim Baggott had produced a book on the Higgs boson all of five weeks after the likely detection was announced following several years work by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, it seemed likely that this too was a botched rush job. But the reality is very different.
In one sense it has to be a rushed job – the announcement was made on 4 July 2012 and the book was out by mid-August, featuring said announcement. So that bit of the book could hardly have had much time for careful editing, bearing in mind publishers usually take at least a couple of months from final versions of the text to having a physical book. (Much of the rest of the book was written well in advance.) But the remarkable trick that Baggott and OUP have pulled off is that the rush doesn’t show. This is an excellent book throughout.
The first, but probably not most important way it’s great is that it provides by far the best explanation of what the Higgs field is and how it is thought to work (and what the Higgs boson has to do with anything) I’ve seen – and that by a long margin. However, for me it’s not so much that, as the way it provides a superb introduction to the development of the standard model of particle physics, our current best guess of what everything’s made of. Again, this is the best I’ve ever read and yet it’s here just as a setting for the Higgs business. It is really well done, and the book deserves a wide readership for that alone, not to mention the way it puts the Higgs into context.
Is it perfect? Well, no. Like every other book I’ve read on the subject it falls down on making the linkage between the mathematics of symmetry and the particle physics comprehensible. That is immensely difficult to do, but ought to be possible. However, as long as you take some of the symmetry stuff on trust, the rest works superbly well.
Congratulations, then, to author and publisher alike. Both in its timing and its content this is a tour de force. Recommended.

Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

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…