The physics book generating the most bloggy buzz in the latter part of 2010 would have to be Ian Sample’s Massive: The Missing Particle that Sparked the Greatest Hunt in Science, about the as yet undetected particle known as the Higgs boson. Detecting the Hiigs is the most immediate goal of the Large Hadron Collider, so it’s a topic that’s in the air at the moment, so this book was inevitable– in fact, the publisher sent me not one but two review copies. I gave one away, but that makes me feel even more guilty for taking months to get around to reviewing it.
This is, basically, a concise history of particle physics in the accelerator era, with a focus on the theoretical mechanism that accounts for the mass of the various particles making up the Standard Model. It’s not about the gory details of the science– if you know a little bit already, this won’t provide any revelatory new insights– but more about how particle physics got where it is today. If you’re not familiar with the story, this is a very good book to read. It’s engagingly written, well-researched, and a good, fast read– I read the whole thing during the flight from Albany to Orlando on Wednesday, and it did a great job distracting me from the many annoyances of air travel.
That said, you just know there has to be a “but” coming…
The problem is that while it’s a very nice concise history of modern particle physics, it’s not any more than that. And there are some bits that feel a bit off. The history of particle physics that it provides at times occasionally glosses over things that don’t really fit into the narrative of the triumph of accelerator physics, such as the fact that most of the lighter exotic particles were first detected in cosmic ray collisions, not accelerators.
The book is also strangely shy about some potentially controversial topics. Sample notes several times that while the particle bears his name, Peter Higgs was not the only one to come up with the theory that bears his name– five other physicists can claim to have predicted the same basic idea, and two of them unquestionably beat Higgs into print with it. And yet, while there are numerous mentions of Higgs’s humility and how he’s uncomfortable with having the particle tagged with only his name, there are a scant three paragraphs devoted to the opinions of the other five people with a claim on the same idea, at least some of whom are rather annoyed about the state of affairs. This feels like a missed opportunity to get into an interesting and complex subject that isn’t discussed anywhere near as often as the awesomeness of the Standard Model is. As it is, though, the feelings of people who aren’t Peter Higgs get about the same amount of space as is devoted to recounting how many physicists dislike the term “God particle.”
There are a few other places where it feels like the rough edges have been smoothed off the story in this kind of manner. The discussion of the demise of the Superconducting Supercollider is another– it’s rather one-sided, and reads very much like Sample didn’t really talk about it with anyone who wasn’t a particle physicist.
Had either of these topics gotten the same detailed treatment given the various alarmist theories of how one accelerator or another might destroy the world, this would’ve been a much stronger book. As it is, it’s… nice. It’s a concise and engaging overview of particle physics, but also kind of breezy, flowing serenely above and around a number of issues.
Now, you should add salt as appropriate– I am very much not a particle physicist, and to be honest, I’m kind of jaded abut the whole subject. If you’re either new to the subject, or obsessed with it, you’re likely to have a higher opinion of this than I do.
This is my blog, though, so what you get is my opinion, which is this: if you want to get a feel for how the physics really works, you’d be better off reading The Theory of Almost Everything by Robert Oerter. If you’d prefer a more down-and-dirty treatment of the personalities and politics involved, a la The Four Percent Universe, with the rough edges intact, you need to wait for someone else to write it, because while this book nods in that direction, it’s really not what the book is about.