Lively popular account of late-20th-century physics, physicists and their machines.
To a physicist, “massive” does not mean “heavy,” explains Guardian science correspondent Sample. It means having mass or weight (such as an atom) as opposed to having no mass (such as a light photon). The author adds that at the instant of the Big Bang, everything in the universe existed as energy. Einstein pointed out that energy and mass are equivalent, and an instant after the Bang, an energy field that permeated the fledgling universe switched on. Depending on how strongly particles felt it, they acquired mass, resulting in protons, electrons, atoms, molecules, stars and eventually life itself. This is the Higgs field named after British physicist Peter Higgs, the central figure in Sample’s narrative. Scientists take a new theory seriously when it makes accurate predictions, and discoveries of the W and Z particles in the 1980s did just that. Although now an accepted concept, the theory also predicts a massive Higgs particle, an essential element and the only particle in the standard model of our universe still undiscovered. Careful readers will learn a good deal of physics, but Sample spends equal time on personalities, rivalries and histories of the gigantic particle accelerators racing to find the Higgs. In the lead is the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), which uses the world’s largest accelerator, now operating in Switzerland. American readers may wince to learn how the United States assured itself second place when Congress cancelled the much larger Superconducting Super Collider in 1993, but the modest collider at Fermilab outside Chicago remains a contender.
Quality science journalism.