btripp_books (btripp_books) wrote,
btripp_books
btripp_books

Science!

Sometimes I'm surprised by a book, but this book came to me somewhat as a surprise. I'd been kvetching a bit with one of the PR gals from Wiley about how I “couldn't wait to get a job so I could quit reading job search books”, and indicated that some of the stuff I'd otherwise be reading included popular physics books. I guess she made a note of this, as when the next “business” book review copy showed up, there was also a copy of Paul Halpern's Collider: The Search for the World's Smallest Particles, which made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside (since, obviously, there wasn't much chance of my reviewing this over in The Job Stalker).

The other main surprise about this book is that it is only thematically about the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) at CERN. I had wondered when this came in how one might have cranked out a whole book about the LHC when it had only very recently been put back (after a bit of a melt-down when it was first fired up) on-line. Instead, this is a rather exquisite history of sub-atomic particle physics, within the context of the development and goals of the LHC program. I understand that some others have found this a weakness in the book (looking, I must assume, for an in-depth over-view of the LHC), but I was very pleased to find this the thrust of the book,

The book begins with the LHC in a Prologue and then moves to something of a “thumbnail” of the history of the science and politics which led to the LCH in the Introduction. At this point, however, it abandons the present and runs the clock all the way back to the ancient philosophic antecedents of “atomic theory”, and the 16th-18th century scientists who sought ways of understanding matter and energy. These philosophic/scientific aspects fill the first few chapters, rolling through the years up to Einstein, and into the Theoretical struggles (attempts at a Theory of Everything, and various related permutations, string theory, supersymmetry, Higgs fields, multiverses, etc.) of the current era. Once all this is established, Halpern turns to the meat of the book, looking at how we got from there to here in the context of the laboratory.

One of the more engaging aspects of the telling is the inclusion of a good amount of biographical detail about the main figures. While I have read quite a deal on the science, I don't believe I've ever picked up a biography of any of the scientists (well, I guess with the exception of Feynman's auto-biographical books), and it was fascinating to see where the “leading lights” of this area of physics had come from.

The story picks up with Ernest Rutherford, and is thick with names, familiar and new (to me), and their theories, experiments, collaborations, and conflicts. One chapter covers the late 1800's through the early 1920's, with all the amazing expansion that physics made then. Next is turns to the development of the accelerators, looking at the early research, and early advocates, while focusing on the career of Ernest Lawrence. From here it shifts back to theory, looking at forces and how they interact with various particles; this involving Fermi, Gamow, and QED (Quantum ElectroDynamics), along with a raft of other Big Names.

At this point the big colliders come to the fore, in a chapter (largely led by Robert R. Wilson, a protege of Lawrence who created Fermilab and the Tevatron, and Carlo Rubbia, who spurred on CERN) that looks at the development of the main American and European facilities. This walks the reader through the search for ever-higher energies, and the scientific challenges towards finding ways of experimentally validating the predictions of QCD (Quantum ChromoDynamics, which deals with the sub-sub-atomic world of quarks, etc.), and runs pretty much up to the mid-1980's (with a bit of a forward jump to the 1995 announcement by two teams at Fermilab of the discovery of the top quark).

The next section covers the sad tale of the Superconducting Super Collider – the mammoth (the collider was to have a 54-mile circumference ring!) device begun under Reagan, but canceled under Clinton. This part deals more with politics and the issues of funding such huge projects, but also considers the science involved and the fallout (and continuing effects) on atomic physics in the U.S. from the program's cancellation. Here the book turns to CERN, and looks at the development of the LHC, noting the differences of how “big science” is funded in the European context, but also going into quite a lot of detail in what is involved in that machine.

Again, the book shifts focus, now back to theory, and looks at dark matter, dark energy, and the current thought about these hypothesized unseen parts of the Universe, and experiments that are designed to possibly “throw some light” on them. From here it moves deeper into theoretical zones, and looks at various “universal” proposals, from multiple-worlds to many-dimensioned realities, and discussing how these sorts of things might be approached on an experimental basis.

Finally, Halpern reviews some of the “horror story” scenarios that have appeared in the press (and on the web) since the start of the LHC, from creating a black hole that will swallow up the Earth, to supposed time-travel (it's a pity he didn't include how seeking out the mass of the Higgs Boson figures into the story line of the old SciFi series LEXX), putting them in contexts of being very very unlikely if not categorically impossible. A Conclusion at the end outlines some predictions for “The Future of High-Energy Physics”, listing projects in the works, new technologies that might be arising, and the ever-gloomy look at the political will to fund these sorts of massive programs.

As you may have guessed, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Collider and would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in physics, or even science in general. Not only is is a wonderful survey of what has happened in the field, it provides personalizing backgrounds on many major players that I'd never encountered previously, as well information on folks who did significant pieces of research that I'd never heard of. As this is brand-new, you should be able to find a copy at your local book vendor, although Amazon currently has it at a very substantial (35% off) discount. What I can't figure, though, is how “new” copies of this are already out in the “aftermarket” … this is a wonderful popular science book, and deserves to find a wide audience!


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