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Quantum Field Theory and the Hunt for an Orderly Universe

By Frank Close

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-465-02144-4
Publisher: Basic

Close (Theoretical Physics; Oxford Univ./Neutrino, 2010, etc.) chronicles the search for the elusive Higgs Boson particle (the “God Particle”).

The author begins with Quantum Electrodynamics, Paul Dirac's groundbreaking but flawed 1928 model that unified Special Relativity and Quantum theory, and examines how it led to a succession of important discoveries: gauge invariance, renormalization, parity violations, the existence of quarks, symmetry breaking and the existence of new weird particles such as the Higgs Boson. Experiments to verify the theories needed larger and larger accelerators, with high-energy particles colliding at speeds of 300,000 kilometers per second. A major thread of the story is the interaction between the key scientists, many of whom the author knew personally, as they vied for recognition and the final accolade of a Nobel Prize. Close explains that it is not only necessary to make a great discovery but to be the first to publish it. Waiting for confirming results before publishing may prove disastrous in the competition. Throughout, the author chronicles the winners and losers in the annual Nobel sweepstakes, giving them recognition for their achievements and providing a lively thread for readers who may be struggling to comprehend the science. The story culminates with the Large Hadron Collider, which has been fully operational since 2009 but has yet to produce results. Its effort to verify the existence of the Higgs Boson by “recreat[ing] the conditions of the early universe in the laboratory” comes with a hefty price tag. In the author's view, the 60-year effort to confront “the paradox of the Infinity Puzzle has brought us to the threshold of being able to address the question of existence itself.”

Close ably demonstrates the stakes in this perhaps misplaced, hubristic effort.