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Booklog

I like big books.

The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World

The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World - Sean Carroll (Reviewers Note: 3 stars for me personally because it felt more like a recap of things I've already learned, but when I think about it as a recommendation for a different type of audience, the less scientifically initiated, the rating goes up significantly to 4-5 stars. If the world of particle physics is completely new to you, this is a 5-star book and the place you should FIRST read about the Higgs. If you've got some physics training and are a blog-junky, read for the history of the project, which is excellent, and the where do we go from here parts.)

Instinct told me it was too early for a book on the discovery of the Higgs and its implications for the future of physics, but i threw caution to the wind because said book was written by my favorite living physicist. ([b:From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time|6371455|From Eternity to Here The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time|Sean Carroll|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1347518733s/6371455.jpg|6559050] is pretty much my absolute favorite popular physics book of all time. If you're interested in fundamental questions and cosmology you can hardly do better.) The fact of the matter is we don't even know if what we've found at the LHC is THE Higgs that completes the Standard Model or if it's a sign of something new and different. Sure, it meshes well with a powerful theory that has so far worked remarkably well when we've tested other more easily accessible aspects, but more experimentation has to be done to be sure-sure.

To be absolutely fair to Dr. Carroll, he is completely forthright about the extent of our knowledge at this point and his approach is one of measured scientific reserve and optimism. He also makes an extremely good point about how difficult it is to convey how important the discovery is: the level of physics involved in discussing the implications of the discovery of the Higgs boson is such that it makes popular treatment incredibly challenging. Its certainly not impossible, and Carroll makes a noble effort, but there are certain chapters (like the on spontaneous symmetry breaking) that i imagine would be pure slogging for the uninitiated. The author even gives his blessing for the faint of heart to skip ahead on the more technical chapters to the more readily accessible parts of what it all means.

In general the structure and layout of the book is logical, if sometimes a bit repetitive (but then again some points definitely bear repeating). If the intended audience is primarily those who are complete laymen when it comes to the scientific and experimental process and modern physics, which I assume to be the case since most there are an awful lot of "mortals" wondering what this is all about since it's been plastered all over the news for the past 6 months, then it succeeds quite remarkably. Carroll is a great science communicator, on par in my opinion with Sagan and deGrasse Tyson. As I mentioned earlier, he has his work cut out for him. Explicating even the general principles of quantum field theory requires a paradigm shift from the perspective of an audience whose everyday experience teaches them that stuff is tangible, real and discreet rather than the view that matter and energy are composed of fields whose vibrations we merely perceive to be so. Nevertheless, here's what to expect:

1. What's the point of particle physics and why we care about the Higgs so much?
2. How do we go about finding particles like the Higgs? (How do accelerators work?)
3. A history of the LHC and accelerator discoveries.
4. A history and introduction to quantum field theory.
5. The discovery.
6. What comes next?

Of these topics, my scientifically inclined mind was most eager for #6, which was disappointingly short. Once again, this is no fault of Carroll's. We don't know really where this is going to lead. Can we use the Higgs to access the other 96% of our universe's "missing" mass? Can we use it to validate supersymmetry? Hopefully. We don't know...."only more experiments will tell us...." Which is pretty much what any reasonable person would expect as an answer at this short a juncture from the discovery itself.

I think the concluding remarks that seemed to indicate that the discovery of the Higgs is this generation's equivalent of the moon landing in terms of its impact on and ability to inspire children to pursue careers in science is highly optimistic. Sure, a key component of the survival of big science is the inspiration and wonder it generates, but you have to wonder if we've reached such an esoteric level that most people (whose tax dollars fund these projects) can simply no longer connect with the discovery. Sure there was a lot of media attention, but it also died off rather quickly and was (probably by necessity) more than a little superficial. In fact, it probably generated more confusion and misperceptions than conveying the true gravity of the discovery and was then just as easily forgotten. You have to wonder if the next generation of particle physicists, the five to seven year olds who still love science connected with the news at all. It's definitely not the same as gathering your family around the television to watch a man bounce around on the surface of another celestial body. The visual imagery is more visceral, the technical achievement more readily apparent to anybody who goes outside and looks up and for kids at least, it just seems a heck of a lot cooler. Not to say that the LHC is not cool - it most definitely is. Pictures of it are also really impressive, but explaining what it does and how it does it to a child is a much more difficult task than taking them outside on a clear night and pointing at the sky and saying "We're going to build rockets that go there."

And don't get me wrong, it needs to be made inspiring! We need to convey just how important these types of experiments are and Carroll has made a heroic effort in that direction as a first step. His accounting is honest, realistic and also imbued with that sense of awesomeness that we science geeks tend to feel when thinking about the universe - and it comes through in remarkably straightforward terms. One would hope his exhortation to his colleagues to be better communicators is taken with all due seriousness. We are in an age of "big science." The problems we face more and more often require huge investments of time and money, which is more and more difficult to sell when the gains are in the realm of pure reason to an audience that primarily wants "stuff" for their investments. Carroll puts it nicely when he says the low lying fruit has been picked clean in physics. This needs to be communicated to people with the same gravity as the excitement we typically try to convey when first selling projects for the next generation of physics. Again, this book does that extremely well.

Again, if you haven't been keeping up and have no idea what a boson is or think that dark matter and antimatter are purely the realm of science fiction, this is a great starting point for you. In fact, its probably the best game in town. (Be warned there's some heavy science necessary if you want to understand it more fully, but to see why it's important, you won't.) If you're a science blog junkie, then a lot of this stuff is old hat to you and the more forward looking sections may leave you hanging a bit.

Also, if you get the chance to attend any of Carroll's talks, do yourself a favor and get a ticket. The man is hilarious, knowledgeable and able to answer even complicated questions in ways that everyone can understand.

Oh, and if you're reading Dr. Carroll, maybe I'm crazy, but I think your artist forget his right hand rule when constructing the image on page 57. 8)