The Particle at the End of the Universe, Sean Carroll

Science books make me so happy!

In July 2012, scientists from the CERN Large Hadron Collider announced to the world that it looked very much like they had found the elusive Higgs boson. This was super-exciting for nerds like me, but for some reason it also attracted the interest of a very large number of non-nerd-like people. One possible reason for this wide-spread interest was the insistence by the media of referring to the Higgs boson as the “God particle” despite it being nothing of the sort. In fact, the most popular origin story for the term “God particle” was physicist Leon Lederman saddling it with this name because the publisher of a book he was writing wouldn’t let him call it the “goddamn particle” (in reference to the expense and difficulty in finding it).

The Higgs boson is exciting because it was initially predicted in the 60s by many independent working groups of scientists, including Peter Higgs who’s name somehow came to be associated with this new particle (even he’s not sure how, and apparently refers to the boson as the particle that goes by the name of Higgs). The predictions lead to many theories about how big this particle might be, what it’s characteristics should be, and therefore how to go about finding it. The CERN accelerator is just powerful enough to potentially find Higgs as long as it turns out to have a mass that is detectable at these levels. A higher mass particle would never have been found. And of course, it’s always exciting to develop a scientific theory that tells you about the existence of something formerly unknown, and to then lead you to exactly where that thing might be found. Neptune was discovered this way, and Einstein’s theory of relativity was given an additional checkmark when it predicted effects of gravitational lensing that were confirmed years later during a solar eclipse.

The surprise (for me) in this book was that the Higgs particle may form a portal to electrically neutral, weakling interacting massive particles which may form the basis of dark matter and dark energy. If this dark matter interacts with Higgs, then scientists may be able to use the results of Higgs decay to find statistical anomalies in rates at which stable particles are creates which could indicate the existing of brand new particles. This would lead us down a whole new field of particle physics. Exciting times!

This book contains a few other surprises as well. There are a few chapters that deal with the construction of CERN itself and how it works to smash protons together and try to detect entirely new particles. The detector itself is actually a series of detectors, wrapped a bit like an onion, with each layer designed to detect very specific types of particles that interact with the material it’s made from. Non-interacting particles might pass through the first layer only to interact with and be detected by the second layer, or the third. Particles that pass through all layers undetected are assumed to be neutrinos, inferred by an undetected loss of energy. For another time – a post about statistics and particle physics 🙂

Rating: Buy it. Assuming you are a science nerd like me, or if you really want to know a little more about the LHC.

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