Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Who Cares About Particle Physics? - Pauline Gagnon ****

This could be a very short book, consisting only of the words 'I do' - but a more realistic title would be 'What has the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) ever done for us?' Pauline Gagnon takes us on a tour of the standard model of particle physics, introduces the clumsily-titled Brout-Englert-Higgs field (most of us give in and accept it is more practically called the Higgs field, while recognising the other contributors), investigates the role of particle accelerators and takes us through the success with the Higgs boson, and the less successful search for dark matter and supersymmetrical particles.

The later part of the book is a bit of hotchpotch of the author's pet topics (or at least I'm guessing this, as they don't really flow from the first six or seven chapters) on the likes of a rather meandering collection of what research does for us from cancer cures to nuclear fusion (eventually), an examination of the management model used at CERN, a discussion of the (lack of) diversity in physics and bizarrely the role of Mileva Maric in Einstein's work, before reverting to topic of the book with a final chapter looking at possible future discoveries at CERN.

What makes this book worth celebrating for me is getting a really good feel for what the scientists working at the LHC actually do, how they interpret those messy-looking blasts of data, how so many scientists can work together (perhaps ascribing rather more efficiency to the process than is strictly accurate) and why this kind of research is valuable. This kept me interested and wanting to discover more.

I am giving this book four stars for its interesting insider content and particularly its insight into the way that the LHC is used that I have never seen elsewhere. But it does have some issues. Gagnon's attempt to speak down to the general reader sometimes feels a little condescending, not least in the decision to use stuffed toys to represent fundamental particles - it feels like she's trying too hard. There's also a classic 'expert's issue' in explaining why the particle discovered was thought to be a Higgs boson. She explains how the standard model was flawed and patched up with the idea of the Higgs etc. field. This implied there should be Higgs bosons, but they didn't know the mass. So how do they know that the new particle is a Higgs boson, rather than just something else that was missing from the standard model? There is no convincing answer given for this.

The writing style was also a little too much like being lectured - a barrage of facts, lacking much in the way of narrative structure. And an oddly obvious error had crept in: a table showing the behaviour of dark matter claimed it was not influenced by gravity, which is rather odd since this is the only way it can be detected. Oh, and the author falls into the error of trying to justify the expenditure on CERN because it gave us the web - a particularly lame argument.

However, these negatives are more than overcome by the content in the sense that we get far more than the typical basic tour and explanation of the LHC - this is really insightful material on how the LHC experiments are used and how they might be extended in the search for dark matter and the (increasingly unlikely) supersymmetric particles. Because of this, it's a book that's well worth reading if you have interest in this most fundamental of physical explorations.


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Review by Brian Clegg

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