On July 4, 2012, at the CERN laboratory in Geneva -- home to the massive particle accelerator known as the Large Hadron Collider -- two groups of physicists announced the discovery of a long-sought-after elementary particle dubbed "the God particle." The Higgs boson, as it is officially known, is important -- on the most basic level, for giving other subatomic particles mass.
"The Higgs particle arises from a field pervading space, known as the Higgs field," explains Caltech physicist Sean Carroll in "The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World." "Everything in the known universe, as it travels through space, moves through the Higgs field; it's always there lurking invisibly in the background."
As to why this matters, Carroll says that "without the Higgs, electrons and quarks would be massless, just like photons, the particles of light. They would move at the speed of light themselves, and it would be impossible to form atoms and molecules much less life as we know it. ... Without it, the world would be an utterly different place."
"The Particle at the End of the Universe" is a scientific detective story. The search for this particle was driven by a fundamental mystery: What is the nature of the universe? That, Carroll says, is a matter of both philosophy and curiosity going back to Aristotle. "Passion for science," he writes, "derives from an aesthetic sensibility, not a
This key idea suggests a way of thinking about theoretical physics -- even for the non-scientifically minded -- as the search for "an elegant mechanism ... like being able to read poetry in the original language, instead of being stuck with mediocre translation."
Carroll gives a lot of context to this story -- facts and figures, yes, but also passion, characters, history. He introduces physicists such as Peter Higgs (from whom the Higgs boson gets its name) François Englert, Robert Brout, Carl Richard Hagen, Gerald Guralnik and Tom Kibble, all of whom did groundbreaking work in the early 1960s positing the existence of such a particle.
The book also traces the politics and the economics of the Large Hadron Collider, built with international money and participation. "Over and over again," Carroll writes, "physicists I talked to while writing this book spoke ... about how CERN could serve as a model for large-scale international collaboration."
One of Carroll's goals with this book is to open subatomic physics to an audience that might be daunted otherwise. Yet it is Carroll's authority as a physicist himself that gives "The Particle..." its heft.
The flashy phrase "the God particle," coined by Nobel laureate Leon Lederman, refers to "the singular role of the Higgs as the final part of the Standard Model of particle physics," which "explains everything we experience in our everyday lives...," writes Carroll. "It's the full theory of immediately discernible reality."
Without the Higgs, there would be no friction, no essential tension, nothing for quarks, neutrinos and electrons to push against. In that sense, perhaps, it may be most accurate to call the Higgs boson an animating force -- one that disrupts or breaks certain symmetries between particles and helps create a differentiated world.
"We are part of the universe that has developed a remarkable ability," Carroll observes; "we can hold an image of the universe in our minds. We are matter contemplating itself."
This is as close to metaphysics as the book gets, but it's a stunning statement nonetheless, suggesting science is a form of heightened self-discovery, in which the universe we study is ourselves.
E. P. Dutton
$27.95, 352 pages