Massive by Ian Sample

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Steven Colyer
    January 14, 2011

    Thanks for the heads up, Chad. Your reviews are excellent.

    Have you ever read NPP laureate Martinus “Tini” Veltman’s book, Facts and Mysteries in Particle Physics?. Like you, he’s a diehard experimentalist. I give the book the highest rating, for nothing else than the 80 or so small capsules of the lives of the many men (and a few women) who gave us the great discoveries leading up to the Standard Model.

    Also, the Higgs Boson, while important, was never the chief goal of the LHC. That’s just the big thing that’s sold to the public and thus the politicians who control the purse-strings.

    No, the chief goal is to find the SuperSymmetric particles, SUSY. If neither are found, careers will be in jeopardy, and it will be back to the drawing board, so to speak.

    Except for SuperStrings theorists, who will counter that they were wrong about the exact energy/mass of the Gluinos/Sparticles, etc., and they’re simply more massive than previously thought, so please send us more money and we’ll figure out what they should be. :-)

    Always, sheesh, with the money with them. And backpeddling. They’ve cornered the market. :-p

  2. #2 onymous
    January 14, 2011

    five other physicists can claim to have predicted the same basic idea, and two of them unquestionably beat Higgs into print with it

    Six: Anderson, Brout/Englert, and Guralnik/Hagen/Kibble.

    I was curious about these arguments so I read the papers recently to try to get a sense of which people were close to the modern understanding of the Higgs mechanism at which time.

    Philip Anderson clearly had the Higgs mechanism first, but he’s a condensed matter physicist, so he wrote about it in a nonrelativistic context and only made some sketchy remarks at the end about how it could also apply in particle physics. Still, the key idea is really unambiguously there and correct; it’s a very nice paper and amazing that he grasped not only its relevance in his own field but also that it could be important for high-energy physics.

    The Higgs boson itself, as an excitation around the symmetry-breaking condensate, appears first in the paper by Higgs, I think.

    Most (or maybe all) of the six who came after Anderson were aware of his work, and I think seriously short-changed him by pretending that the relativistic version of the mechanism is conceptually any different from the nonrelativistic version. It really isn’t.

  3. #3 Steven Colyer
    January 14, 2011

    And the odds of Philip Anderson winning a 2nd Nobel Prize in Physics for the Higgs are virtually ZERO, in spite of his obvious contribution as you said, SHOULD the Higgs, or any of the FIVE Higgsies as some have predicted, ever be found, unless The Swedish Academy chooses to take on the American Physics community.

    The reason? Anderson was HUGE in having the SSC canceled. The number of American PhD jobs LOST in that was tremendous, and the community’s memory is long.

    Peter Woit at Not Even Wrong covered this issue not too long ago: here.

    Indeed, forget Anderson. There are SIX other worthy recipients as you said, and Alfred Nobel was quite clear in his will that no more than three recipients could win a NPP in any given year.

    But this is not an issue at all IF the Higgs isn’t found, is it?

  4. #4 Moshe
    January 14, 2011

    I can see how hearing repeatedly uncritical accounts about the glory of particle physics can become annoying, but is not having enough Nobel prize gossip really a major problem? Because I know of lots of places you can get your fix…

  5. #5 Juice
    January 14, 2011

    This book sounds a lot like “The God Particle” by Leon Lederman.

  6. #6 Kea
    January 14, 2011

    There is no Higgs boson, people.

  7. #7 Chad Orzel
    January 15, 2011

    I can see how hearing repeatedly uncritical accounts about the glory of particle physics can become annoying, but is not having enough Nobel prize gossip really a major problem?

    Not for me, or most other physicists who know where to find that sort of thing, even if we don’t care. But you don’t see that much of it in trade books, so it would at least be different.

    It’s not like the existing book is devoid of Nobel talk, either. It includes the inevitable catalogue of every Nobel ever awarded to something that might plausibly be deemed particle physics, and numerous reminders that if and when the Higgs is found, Peter Higgs is in line for some dynamite money. Given that, the way the question of credit for the others involved is raised and dismissed in a bit more than one page feels a little unseemly.

    To put it a slightly different way: the book provides a nearly exhaustive listing of Peter Higgs’s opinions on matters related to particle physics. The perfunctory and abbreviated discussion of the potential Nobel situation kind of highlights this fact, and makes it seem a little like Sample interviewed Higgs extensively, and didn’t bother talking to anybody else. Which has a distinguished tradition in other areas of non-fiction writing (Bob Woodward, anyone?), but isn’t really what I would expect in a physics book that is marketed as being about a particle rather than a person.

  8. #8 Moshe
    January 15, 2011

    I’m surprised, with all these books I’d think that every potential human interest story would have been told at least a few times by now, those are so much easier to write…I tend to think about any such color story as not entirely non-fictional, but certainly some such stories are more fictional than others.

    So, on the bright side, maybe there is room for yet another book after all, whose novelty would be a thorough discussion of the internal politics, and you’d get to read it…

  9. #9 Sili
    January 15, 2011

    Alfred Nobel was quite clear in his will

    Was he?

    I thought that along with the non-posthumousity was decided by the committee hashing out the practicalities afterwards.

    –o–

    Oh dear. Now you’ll never get invited on the Guardian’s Science Weekly podcast.

  10. #10 Steven Colyer
    January 16, 2011

    You are quite correct! If anything, Nobel strongly implied only one person per year should win, and that for work in the past year. From his will:

    … a fund, the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind. The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics; …..
    (Emphasis mine)

    It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be a Scandinavian or not. …. Finally, it is my express wish that following my death my veins shall be opened, and when this has been done and competent Doctors have confirmed clear signs of death, my remains shall be cremated in a so-called crematorium.

  11. #11 CCPhysicist
    January 16, 2011

    I think you might like the book “Second Creation” for its detailed history of the rise of modern particle physics.

  12. #12 Steven Colyer
    January 17, 2011

    CCPhysicist, was that directed at me or Chad, or both? No matter, I myself am a diehard Standard Modeler, seeing as how I’m a fan of theories than can be falsified but haven’t been. It’s the greatest achievement of Humanity to date. All other theories are speculative, and I wish them well. Show me the data, or better yet, propose an experiment that includes the SM and either confirms or denies the speculator’s Theory X, or M or F, and I’ll jump on board.

    The SM is far from complete, there’s that pesky Higgs and SUSY stuff, and the masses of the fundamental particles have to be inserted by hand. So? We’ve come so far, and still have far to go … miles to go before we sleep. No worries, the LHC will reveal much in the next few years, right around the time New Horizons reveals Pluto, Charon, Nix, and Hydra up close. The best is yet to come.

    In the meantime, QM itself isn’t complete, and I look to people like Chad in the field of Condensate Physics to keep on keeping on and revealing much. No field has won more NPP’s. Lasers, Superfluidity, Superconductivity, and quantum Hall effect are in a word: awesome. The world of the tiny revealed in the world of the macro. What’s not to love? Even the youngest of the 4, qHe, has won 2 Nobel prizes, so far. What will the morrow bring?

  13. #13 Ian Hardiman
    January 19, 2011

    This is a really interesting review. I’m a High School Physics teacher and am always on the look out for interesting books to add to the reading list I give to enthusiastic student. I must say the “How to teach Physics to your dog…” book has been a massive hit and a real talking point amongst students.

  14. #14 Pushkin
    January 21, 2011

    The book is a great book even if it is too PH-centric. Some of Peter Higgs’ stories are hard to believe…he didn’t want to go to Oxford or Cambridge or IC London for example. Oxbridge was for rich people and IC was all about science (which is what Physics is I believe). Also, if Higgs is so gracious, why does he leave out people who clearly had a more complete solution or could ruin the discussed Nobel math. See this recent presentation for example.

    http://cops.physto.se/klein/2009.html

    I found this playlist with all the others:

    http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=BDA16F52CA3C9B1D

  15. #15 Pushkin
    January 21, 2011

    Also, on this second link, Peter Higgs did not attend the Sakurai Prize.

    http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=BDA16F52CA3C9B1D

    Some have written or blogged that he did not attend becuase he wants to seperate himself from the other five….again not very gracious.

    While the other five may be upset about the credit they get at least they are honest. They also (Kibble in particular) seem to be dissappointed that Higgs did not attend to make it more “complete”.

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