January 26, 2020

Review: Massive by Ian Sample.

A great scientific revolution may be upon us. This week we look at Massive: The Hunt or the God Particle by Ian Sample. Out from Virgin Books, Massive can be said to be a book over 13 billion years in the making. At the heart of the search lies a simple particle: the Higgs-boson, a hypothetical particle that imparts mass on the universe.

Confirming the Higgs has been the name of the game in particle physics for the last decade, as ever larger accelerators have been constructed in the quest. At the fore-front of this hunt is CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) a 5 1/2 mile diameter accelerator built under the Swiss French border. As the LHC is run at ever higher energies, the reality that the Higgs many be confirmed (or even denied) could come literally any day now. The repercussions would be enormous; this wouldn’t just fuel a new batch of PhDs, but vindicate much of modern particle physics.

The book traces the birth of modern quantum theory from the age of Einstein through the Cold War up to the modern day. Like astronomy, there was an outlook at the end of the 19th century that the realm of discovery in science and physics had reached an end. Little did folks know that the realm of quantum mechanics and atomic physics was on the verge of overturning reality. But far from being abstract, the dawn of the atomic age and the political and cultural significance has thrust theoretical physics to the fore. Scientists have traditionally ridden the wave of political funding, using it to build larger accelerators in search of things such as the Higgs. As a result of the Atomic Age, nations have generally realized that they can scarcely afford to be left behind, lest another surreptitious discovery with awesome applications be made.

But what is the Higgs-Boson? Why is it so elusive, and what could its discovery mean? First postulated by Peter Higgs in 1963, this diminutive particle is wrapped up in the very super-symmetry of quantum space-time itself. A good analogy is the think of the Higgs as the collective “drag” on traditional baryonic matter, which gives it the properties of mass. The search for the Higgs ties in with the search to unify the four basic forces of nature in what has been termed as the Grand Unification Theory, or GUT. GUT has been the name of the game in particle physics in the past half century; an equation (preferably one that would fit on a t-shirt) that melded electromagnetism, gravity, and the strong and weak nuclear forces.

But the search has not been without its setbacks. Massive tells us of the engineering, financial and even personal and legal woes each project has faced. For example, CERN’s LEP (Large Electron-Positron) collider has to take into account interference of everything from the gravitational pull of the Moon to local train departures. The proposed American Superconducting Super Collider (the SSC) would have rivaled the LHC and perhaps we would already have bagged the Higgs if Congress hadn’t pulled the plug in 1993. And both the LHC and the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) have faced dubious lawsuits fearing they could bring about the end of the universe. The chance of a world ending disaster has been estimated at 10-23 percent, a truly infinitesimally small number. This hasn’t stopped would-be detractors from stating, “So you’re saying there’s a chance?” unknowingly echoing the film Dumb and Dumber. Crazier ideas have been advanced, such as the sabotage of the LHC by time travelers, or even nature itself! (Hey, wasn’t this a theme in the old Green Lantern comics?)  Never mind that the demise of humanity over the next century is much more likely due to environmental short-sightedness than the accidental creation of stranglets or black holes, but that’s another blog post…

The discovery of the Higgs could place us on the verge of a third great scientific revolution. The first was Copernican heliocentrism. The second was Darwinian evolution and biological subsequent demotion. The third was the discovery of the DNA double helix. And what will the Higgs-boson and super-symmetry wrought? Well, as with any discovery, it’s tough to say until it occurs. No one saw the applications of a little particle called an electron when it was first discovered…now the corralling of electrons make modern society (and blogging) possible. Could control of the Higgs field give us a method to manipulate time & space? Could the first detection conceivably be a message from particle physicists of the future to “get off the line?”

Super-symmetry would also open up a whole new menagerie of sister particles. A standard photon would have a partner known as a photino. A mirror gluon would be a gluino. Even the Higgs would have a partner known as a higgsino (a great one for a triple word score!) This may be a peek at the bizarre world of future physics. Perhaps the Higgs has already been lurking in the data of previous runs, or is awaiting discovery at the predicted 160 GeV levels to be identified in the next LHC two year run. Read Massive to get a grasp on what could be the next big thing in science… will it (and this blog) be dated by the end of this year? And, as quoted in the book, will “high-energy physics come to grips with how to deal with blogs?”


  1. [...] sure to read Beyond the God Particle, and also check out Massive for a fine comparison of physics both pre- and post-Higgs discovery. Though controversy endures as [...]

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