March 29, 2020

Review: Beyond the God Particle by Leon Lederman and Christopher Hill

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What’s the ‘next big thing’ in particle physics?

In early July 2012, the announcement came out of Geneva Switzerland that the Higgs boson, a.k.a. the “God Particle” had been caught in the act by researchers working at the Large Hadron Collider.

But what is the Higgs? And where might this discovery lead us to next? This week’s review, entitled Beyond the God Particle by Leon Lederman and Christopher Hill out from Prometheus Books traces the evolution and history leading up to that exciting discovery and the implications that it has for the future of modern particle physics research.

The discovery of the Higgs was a vindication for the Standard Model of particle physics, and points to what may lie beyond. We thought it was nearly as amusing to watch the human story itself evolve as we watched history unfold. There was the triumphant scientists, reporting the existence of the Higgs with a “5-Sigma confidence” which infuriated reporters, who then had to figure out what that means. (think a million-to-one in favor of a discovery). There was the media itself, which had to grapple with explaining an exotic concept between celebrity and sports news on a long holiday weekend. Then we had the seemingly endless cascade of explainer posts that wrestled with what the Higgs is and isn’t. I remember a friend of mine saying he knew “this was it,” when 83 year old Peter Higgs was flown to Switzerland.

But beyond just its discovery, authors Hill and Lederman dig into the true ramifications of the discovery, and where we may be headed next. Or in the case of particle physics in the United States, where we aren’t headed, as the authors look at the debacle that was the Superconducting Collider at the end of the last century. The authors note that every economic boom has also been accompanied by a renaissance in science and research, a warning that doesn’t bode well for the current state of the U.S. economic recovery.

Few know, for example, the research requirements at the CERN in Switzerland gave rise to the Internet and the World Wide Web as we know it. It’s just impossible to predict what weird and wonderful technologies will spring forth from research and development until we’ve actually done the “grunt work” of science. The authors’ note the case of expensive and short lived radioactive isotopes that have to be produced onsite for use in hospital scanning equipment, a process that particle physics may make obsolete. And though the age of the Tevatron project may have come and gone, the proposed Muon Collider and Project X may have the capacity to bring particle physics research in the United States back to the fore.

Be 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 to the moniker, the “God particle” title will probably be forever associated with the Higgs. The authors even note that a Christian conservative tourist once even asked a researcher if there was a “Satan particle” as well! Oh, the times we’re in.


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