The Most Wanted particle, by Jon Butterworth: A Wild, Exciting Ride

Picture of cover of the book, "The Most Wanted Particle"If you want a fly-on-the-wall view of the project that finally discovered the Higgs boson, are you ever in for a ride! It just doesn’t get better than Jon Butterworth’s new book, “Most Wanted Particle: The Inside Story of the Hunt for the Higgs, the Heart of the Future Physics” (or, as it is known more succinctly in the UK and elsewhere, “Smashing Physics: The Inside Story of the Hunt for the Higgs”). Butterworth is a physics professor at University College London and, important for this book, a member of the ATLAS project team at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC). So when he talks about the “inside story,” believe me, he’s not kidding.

He describes the slow buildup to the big discovery so that, sometimes, you almost feel as though you were there yourself. You feel the dismay when, nine days after the LHC is turned on, there is an explosion, and it has to be shut down again till they find the problem and repair it. That takes 14 more months, and you understand why some people begin to wonder whether this gigantic experiment, already several years in the conceiving and building, will ever get off the ground—and whether it was worth the enormous cost. But on July 4, 2012, when the people from the various project teams are gathered together in an auditorium and the leaders understatedly begin to show the most recent data and everyone suddenly realizes what it means—that’s a wonderful day, and you want to leap up and cheer. And maybe cry, too.

Butterworth himself is heavily involved in the ATLAS project to research highly massive particles and particle physics at energies that will take us beyond what is called the Standard Model of physics. Interestingly, he himself began as somewhat sceptical of the Higgs boson and wasn’t sure it would be found. In a way, that adds a whole new layer of authenticity (as though he needed that), because it was the LHC data itself that convinced him. ATLAS and its “sister project,” called CMS, have particle detectors located across the LHC ring from each other. So the results were confirmed twice, independently, making the conclusions strong. Humanity has found the Higgs boson.

While this is a fascinating and exciting book, be prepared: you will need to gird your intellectual loins for this one, because even though it’s a “popular” book, there is a lot of physics detail. If you are not a close follower of these things, it will be easy to get lost in the various particles and what they do, what they decay into and from, whether they have mass or spin—all the quarks and leptons and gluons and Z bosons and photons and W bosons (and let’s not even get started on the antiparticles!)—not to mention charm, up, down, and strange particles. Sometimes, reading Butterworth’s descriptions of all these particles and how they behave and are detected, the best thing you can do is smile blankly and nod and keep reading. Because the basic story is very exciting, and you won’t want to miss a moment of this adventure in which one of the greatest scientific discoveries that have ever been made is brought to vivid life by one of the actual participants.

Most Wanted Particle: The Inside Story of the Hunt for the Higgs, the Heart of the Future Physics, by Jon Butterworth

2015, The Experiment

287 pages USD $33.53/CDN $33.49 (hardcover)

ISBN: 978-1615192458

Yes, I’m Still Here

Whew! Life gets busy! But am I still here? Yes. And am I still doing my “Reading Through my Bookcases” project? Well…technically, yes. Remember that I did say I was going to allow myself to be distracted from time to time, if something interesting came up. And something did. Fourteen somethings, as it happened.

Boxed set of Seven, the Series

I heard an interview with two authors who were among seven authors who wrote a series of YA books aimed particularly at boys: Seven, the Series. All seven books were released simultaneously in 2012 and could be bought as a set or read individually (in any order), with each book capable of standing alone. The series was about the seven grandsons (from four families) of a man (David McLean) who left each grandson a particular task in his will. Each of the seven authors (six men and one woman) wrote the story of one grandson, with the stories taking us to such places as France, Spain, Iceland, Mount Kilimanjaro, Canada’s far north, and downtown Toronto. The stories aimed to encourage more boys to read, but from the reviews I read, girls are just as likely to enjoy the books too.

Seven - book cover pic 2I loved them, myself. I loved the idea, first of all. But the books had so many exciting and even moving moments. Between Heaven and Earth, where the oldest grandson, DJ, tries to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, just had my heart soaring by the end. In Lost Cause, where DJ’s younger twin brother, Steve, goes to Spain, we learn a lot about the fight against Franco and the fascists. Jump Cut, about Spencer, the rather bored cousin who is only interested in films, is very, very funny. His story links to that of Bunny, his younger brother, whose very simple view of the world gets him involved with some very unexpected and unsavory friends, in Ink Me. And so the books go, as you learn a great deal not just about each of the boys, but about their grandfather David and his amazing life as well.

But just wait. I did say “fourteen” distractions, not “seven.” That’s because the reason I heard the two authors interviewed, that Sunday morning in October, was not so they could talk about the series that had been released two years earlier. No–they were talking about Seven, the Sequels, which had just been released in 2014, simultaneously, like the first ones had been. The first series did so well and was such fun that the lot of them (and Orca Books, the publisher) agreed that there should be another set of books, about the same grandsons, just a few months after their adventures in the first series.

Needless to say, I ran out and ordered them all up at the library. This time, most of the boys are up at their grandfather David’s cabin at Christmas, and behind a panel in the wall, they discover some documents, passports, and other items (including a gun!) that suggests there is much more to learn about David McLean’s early life. So off the boys go again, trying to find out what all of these secret papers mean.

Cover of the book, "Tin Soldier"Steve ends up back in Spain, in Broken Arrow, hunting for an old nuclear weapon lost after World War II. Adam, the only American grandson, finds himself jetting around the Caribbean in Double You, tracking down his grandfather’s apparent double life. In From the Dead, Rennie, the grandson nobody knew about, who helped solve a murder in Iceland in the first series, gets heavily involved in fallout from World War II in, of all places, Detroit. And Webb, possibly my favourite of the grandsons, takes a trip to the southern United States in Tin Soldier, trying to find out why the US military doesn’t want people to know about his grandfather’s role in the Vietnam War. (I think that might be my favourite book of the fourteen, although Jump Cut gives it serious competition.)

On the whole, I loved the books, and I highly recommend them both as reading for boys and for some fairly light, quick reading even for adults who want to take a breather. There are strengths and weaknesses from book to book, of course; for example, I didn’t think the plot of From the Dead held together that well at the end, so I much preferred Rennie’s first story, Close to the Heel, in Iceland. And the plots in the second series, dealing more in the spy world, are somewhat more exciting than those in the first. But on the whole, these are both excellent series, and all of the books are well worth reading.

So…back to my bookcase now? Soon. Probably. :-)



Four Revolutions: Some Things about Science and Human Nature Never Change

Four RevolutionsEverything you’ve always understood about science being self-correcting, becoming more accurate all the time as new evidence comes in? Well, that’s absolutely true. At least, it is true over the long term. BUT…

According to James Lawrence Powell in his new book, Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences: From Heresy to Truth, if there’s one thing you can count on, it’s that a new, more accurate theory about a pivotal aspect of science will be fought tooth and nail and resisted with considerable vehemence, not to mention ridicule, possibly for decades, until it is rather abruptly and matter-of-factly accepted as the obvious truth. At least, that’s how it was for four of the most important theories in the history of science, relating to the nature and history of the earth itself.

This probably happens with “smaller” theories too, where one scientist clings to an older theory about the mechanisms of an obscure single cell, while another scientist provides evidence for a different mechanism. But when it comes to the Biggies—theories that are foundational, that account for the environment in which billions of other scientific events take place—oh, those are going to be fought over, you’d better believe it.

The four divisions in Powell’s book sum up these theories very nicely: Deep Time (the age of the earth), Continental Drift and Plate Tectonics, Meteorite Impact (did it happen? can it happen again?), and Global Warming. One by one over a century or two, each of these concepts intruded into the scientific world view, each of them, in a way, setting the stage for the next one. And all along the way, geologists, biologists, and physicists resisted them with a passion. What was almost as intriguing as this great drama itself, though, was the cast of characters. As you progress through each section, you find yourself thinking, about some revered geologist or physicist, “What? He resisted THIS one too, despite the evidence?” The same “old guard” or, as time went on, their students, always seemed to dig their heels in and never accept the new evidence.

Apart from giving us a fascinating read in the history of science, Powell shows us two things about human nature in this book. The first is that it is as rampant in scientific endeavour as it is in any other human activity. Yes, some people cling to well-earned reputations and can’t see why the standard answers that have served for so long should suddenly be thrown out. And no doubt there are some big egos. Some of the ego is about not wanting to be shown to be wrong before the entire scientific community. But some of it is also a desire not to see one’s entire life’s work proven erroneous and all to have been for nothing. It’s hardly a surprise that that can be a bitter pill to swallow; nor is it a surprise when someone fights against that.

But another thing Powell shows us about human nature is that the tactics of deniers of a new major theory don’t change much. Opposers always seem to provide weak theories or explanations to try to preserve the old theory, that don’t stand up to the new facts. And when those explanations don’t repel the change, these people resort to personal attacks on those who promote the new theories.

This may sound familiar to those scientists currently bringing forward the evidence for global climate change. But they can take heart that this understanding of the world will likely be considered the standard understanding in just another few years. (Let’s hope the people in government get with the program too, as soon as possible, instead of continuing to cling to dead theory that could ruin the world.)

James Lawrence Powell, having a PhD in geochemistry from MIT, is in a position to know something about this subject. He taught geology at Oberlin College for twenty-some years, and is currently the executive director of the National Physical Science Consortium. He gives us a compelling and thorough tour of the history of some powerful changes in what we know about the world as well as the wrestlings it took to get those changes recognized.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in gaining an understanding of how the self-correcting nature of science works behind the scenes, where the facts and evidence, always win—eventually.

2014, Columbia University Press
384 pages USD $31.50/CDN $35.00 (hardcover)
ISBN: 978-0231164481

Another Detour: a History of the Alphabet!

Language Visible

Anyone who knows me is aware that I am fascinated by the history of writing and by the alphabet in particular. I think the alphabet is probably the best invention ever. Or at least, I’d put it in the top five, along with things like the invention of the wheel, the discovery of fire, and the discovery of mathematics and the laws of physics. It’s that significant and world-changing.

So imagine how excited I was when I discovered a book by David Sacks: Language Visible: Unraveling the Mystery of the Alphabet from A to Z! (Not its only title. It’s complicated. **) What the book is is a history of how the English language got the 26 letters it has today. In fact — we almost had just 24 letters, since “J” and “V” did not get officially accepted as part of the alphabet until the mid-nineteenth century. That’s just one of the many interesting (to me) facts that this book presents.

David Sacks, a freelance journalist and journalism instructor at Carleton University and the University of Ottawa in Canada, introduces the general history of the alphabet before getting down to the history of each individual letter. And right there, I learned something I hadn’t realized: scholars no longer think that alphabetic writing began with the Phoenicians! Those people took it up when it was already a thousand years old. It seems that even this can be traced back to ancient Egypt, where some workers or soldiers in the employ of Egypt grabbed hieroglyphs for words that started with certain sounds, and used those pictures to represent the sounds themselves. Egyptian inscriptions have been found that show this alphabet in use for a Semitic language.

Through the Phoenicians, who refined this alphabet, and then through the Greeks (via trade with the Phoenicians) and then the Romans (adopting Greek writing), and then the various societies that arose as the Roman Empire vanished, we can trace those original Egyptian shapes as they gradually change into the forms and sounds that most of our letters have today. And an even more fascinating fact is that in virtually every language in the world that uses an actual alphabet instead of pictographs or syllabic writing, its alphabet descends from that original alphabet created in Egypt, either through the Phoenician alphabet or a sister South Arabian alphabet. Isn’t that cool?

Sacks also researched the history of each individual letter (and even some letters that no longer exist) and gives each letter its own chapter in the book. So as well as learning things like how the letter “F” actually began as the “W” sound and how it got changed, we learn how some letters have taken on a certain character over the centuries. (“A” means top-notch or top of the class, while the kind of lacklustre “E for effort” got a new lease on life with the development of the Internet and things like “e-mail” and “e-commerce.” And we know the various naughty things that “F” gets up to, while “V,” and “W” can thank their lucky stars that they had the mother they did — “U.”)

Along the way, we also learn some of the history of the societies through which the alphabet passed. We find out just how the trade between the Phoenicians and the Greeks moved the alphabet westward. (Imagine! If the Phoenicians hadn’t ventured as far as they did, we might be expressing things in very complicated, cumbersome pictographs at this very moment. Imagine a blog written like that.) And we realize that many of the Greek names for letters, which we are so familiar with through mathematics and other disciplines, are simply a translation of the original Semitic letter names into more Greek-sounding words. So the Semitic “daleth” became “delta.” “Gimel” became “gamma.” “Lamed” became “lambda.” “Kaph” became “kappa.” And so on.

We aren’t that far away from that very first alphabet, whatever we may think. Thanks to a rudimentary Egyptian picture=sound system picked up by groups of soldiers and transferred to their own Semitic language, there is a vast world of information and literature out there, in almost countless languages and dialects, that would have been much harder (if not impossible) to develop or to express if that ancient alphabet hadn’t existed.

If you love history and especially if you love the intricacies and history of language, I bet you’d really love this book.

(** See, regarding the book title, the thing is, according to Sacks, that he “took some bad advice.” Which is why the hardcover has the name of the book I read, while the name of the Canadian paperback is Letter Perfect: The A to Z History of our Alphabet, the name of the U.S. paperback is Letter Perfect: The Marvelous History of our Alphabet from A to Z, and the U.K. hardocver and paperback are both just called The Alphabet. Like I said above–complicated.)

(And while we’re on the subject, might I recommend another post of mine on one of my writing blogs: Why the Alphabet is the Best Invention Ever.)

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