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)