Book Review: MASSIVE by Ian Sample

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Last week, I received a copy of MASSIVE: The Missing Particle that Sparked the Greatest Hunt in Science (November 2010) written by Ian Sample from the good PR people at Perseus Books.  It was clear from the beautifully assembled prose in the prologue, that this book was going to live up to my expectations.

Instead of being yet another book on the LHC or the history of the Standard Model, MASSIVE is an utterly human account of how the times leading up to the exposition of the Higgs field shaped the science of the day and continue to shape our current searches in modern physics.

The human element of this story was so bizarrely engaging, from Peter Higgs stopping to buy stamps on the late Einstein’s birthday to Prentiki’s crushing referee report on Higgs’s second paper; the way that the history was braided with physics and personal accounts makes MASSIVE a really exceptional read.

Our story begins with a young and nervous Peter Higgs driving to Princeton to present his first seminar on his, soon to be foundational, papers that introduce the Higgs mechanism.  We then get taken back in time to Maxwell and Einstein and Planck and Feynamn and all the other key players who would make the Standard Model possible one day.  I suppose it’s a little hard to read Robert Brout‘s rather tragic sounding line after he and Englert published their (almost) equivalent work (before knowing about Higgs’s paper), “For the first time in my life I felt what it might be like to be a great physicist”, when the book is very clearly following Higgs, not the lesser known Brout and Englert.  Unfortunately, authorship woes and credit are just part of the game of academia, as it were.  As Ian Sample writes,

If the most important thing in the life of a scientist is to discover unknown truths about nature, then getting credit for those discoveries must be a close second.

Dick Hagen, another one of the simultaneous co-inventors of the “Higgs mechanism” (or the Englert-Brout-Higgs-Guralnik-Hagen-Kibble mechanism, as some people call it), wrote a letter in protest to the International Conference on High Energy Physics in 1966 for using the term “Higgs boson“.  The issue of credit (especially for something that will probably be Nobel worthy) is a huge one.  Higgs himself even suggested renaming the Higgs mechanism to the “ABEGHHK’tH mechanism” in honour of all of its discoverers/rediscoverers (Anderson, Brout, Englert, Guralnik, Hagen, Higgs, Kibble, and ‘t Hooft).

Our story continues on through the initial burst of symmetry breaking papers in the 1960s (and the still relative obscurity that the Higgs mechanism existed in) to one of the focuses of 1970s particle physics, the electroweak theory.  It was really the experimentalist spirit of the 70s and all of the exciting questions that electroweak interactions raised that would give us some of the most important particles accelerators in the world.  The energy of the physicists and the excitement they shared was amazing; characterized wonderfully and strangely in this dialogue from Paul Musset to Adbus Salam,

Are you Salam? Get in the car. I have news for you.  We have found neutral currents,

Or perhaps even better in President Reagan’s  “throw deep” speech in support of the Superconducting Super Collider.  The physics community was excited, even the world was excited, for these great experiments to begin.  Unfortunately, politics and finance make everything more complicated and snags are bound to arise.  Troubles aside, our story meets up with a young Frank Wilczek and a budding Large Electron–Positron Collider (LEP) at CERN and we’re one major step closer to looking for the Higgs boson.

In 2000, well before the Large Hadron Collider was going to be up and running, there were rumours that the Higgs boson had been discovered by LEP (shame they were incorrect).  Famously, Stephen Hawking made his bet for $100 with Gordy Kane that neither LEP nor any other particle collider would ever see the Higgs boson because of virtual black holes.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, Peter Higgs was very doubtful of the calculations that lead Hawking to this conclusion (and Peter certainly wasn’t alone) and this lead to a little public drama between the two scientists in the media.

Now in 2010, the LHC, in the old tunnel left behind from the LEP, is on the hunt for new physics and most physicists expect the Higgs boson to be found by it, that is, if the Tevatron doesn’t get their first.  Which form of the Higgs boson it happens to be and what else pops up, is still a matter for much debate, mind you, so there is room for this great story to continue.

—–

MASSIVE is an immensely well written and well researched book that covers the concept of mass from antiquity to the second quantum field theory boom of the 1960s to the Large Hadron Collider today.  The next time someone comes up to you and asks of the LHC, “But what is it really for?”, you hand them this book.

I would recommend MASSIVE to anyone interested in the history of science or scientists, regardless of background (although it may hold the interest of physicists more than others) and especially anyone who enjoyed “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” (while MASSIVE is not an autobiography, the style of story-like narrative, how the story follows Higgs and other characters throughout their journeys, is rather similar and just as engaging).  This was a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Spoiler: The title of the book has multiple meanings.

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