Staff Review: The Particle at the End of the Universe
The Particle at the End of the Universe
If you have a burning curiosity about the mechanics of the universe and the world of physics, or are simply after a book to read that will give you a little bit of context in which to watch The Big Bang Theory TV show, then this is the book for you. The Particle at the End of the Universe by Sean Carroll charts the historic journey, subsequent discovery and evidence of the Higgs boson particle, sometimes referred to as the God particle (however, referring to it as such will not endear you to many physicists).
Most everyone at some stage of their schooling will have learned about atoms and their makeup of electron, neutron and proton particles. Very few, however, will take their education further and learn about the Standard Model of elementary particles (quarks, leptons and bosons) to which the Higgs boson belongs. Physicists explain the behaviour of these particles and how they interact using the Standard Model – a widely accepted framework believed to explain almost everything in the world we see.
Carroll tells us the story of the people who have devoted their lives to discovering the ultimate nature of reality, of which the Higgs is a crucial component. He takes us from Peter Higgs’ first prediction of the particle (later named after him) in 1964, to the eventual discovery of the existence of this particle (or Higgs-like particle) nearly 50 years later. Proof of which could never have been discovered without the help of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN outside of Geneva, a project costing billions of dollars and requiring the international collaboration of thousands of scientists from over a hundred different countries. The proven existence of the Higgs boson validates the final unconfirmed part of the Standard Model, which will guide other theories and discoveries in particle physics and – as with other fundamental discoveries in our past – potentially over time lead to developments in “new physics”, and new technology. Needless to say, the proof of this particle’s existence is big news.
In 13 chapters, Carroll sets out to explain particle physics, the people involved and why it matters. In chapter 1, The Point, he asks why a group of talented and dedicated people would devote their lives to the pursuit of things too small to see. Following this chapter Next to Godliness explores how the Higgs boson really has nothing to do with God but is nevertheless pretty important. In Atoms and Particles he tears apart matter to reveal its ultimate constituents, the quarks and the leptons. In chapter 4, The Accelerator Story, he traces the colourful history of the unlikely pastime of smashing together particles at ever-higher energies. The Largest Machine ever built visits the Large Hadron Collider, the triumph of science and technology that has been searching for the Higgs boson. Wisdom through Smashing explores how to discover new particles by colliding other particles at enormous speeds, and watching what happens. Chapter 7, Particles in the Waves, suggests that everything in the universe is made out of fields: force fields that push and pull, and matter fields whose vibrations are particles. Through a broken mirror scrutinises the Higgs boson and the field from which it springs, showing how it breaks symmetries and gives the universe character. Following this chapter Bringing down the House figures out how to find the Higgs boson, and how we know we’ve found it. In chapter 10, Spreading the word, the curtain is drawn back on the process by which results are obtained and discoveries are communicated. In Nobel dreams the fascinating tale of how the “Higgs” mechanism was invented is related and about how history will remember it. Beyond this horizon considers what lies beyond the Higgs boson: worlds of new forces, symmetries, and dimensions. Lastly, chapter 13, Making it worth defending, asks why particle physics is worth pursuing, and wonders what will come next.
Carroll’s often humorous take on one of the greatest scientific achievements of our time, is an engaging read and sets out an understandable explanation of the what, who and why of particle physics and where we go from here. The search for meaning in the universe continues forward while we wait for the next big thing. As Carroll says ‘Life is good. Have another glass of champagne’.
Find the book here, and buy at your local bookshop.
Trainee Development Editor
Ingrid Bond is Trainee Development Editor for Palgrave Macmillan and has yet to pass through airport international customs without being questioned about her last name. Although her background is in science, she loves to read all genres. She believes no matter what you read you can always learn something—about yourself or about the world in which you live.