There’s a wonderful new book about particle physics that has just come out, Massive:The Missing Particle that Sparked the Greatest Hunt in Science, by Ian Sample, who is a science correspondent for the Guardian. The topic is the huge open question currently at the center of particle physics: is the Higgs mechanism the source of electroweak symmetry breaking (and, at the same time, the source of the mass terms in the Standard Model)? The Tevatron and the LHC are now in a race to either detect the Higgs particle or rule out its existence, with one alternative or the other very likely to come through within the next few years.
Truly explaining what the Higgs mechanism is can only be done with mathematics and physics background far beyond that expected in a popular book, but Massive makes a good try at it. Sample does a wonderful job of telling about the history behind this subject. He’s the first writer I know of who has gotten Peter Higgs to tell his story in detail. The original paper on the subject by Higgs was rejected by Physics Letters, but ultimately published by Physical Review Letters. There’s a complicated priority issue one can argue over and that someday soon a Nobel committee may need to resolve, involving Higgs, Englert, Brout, Guralnick, Hagen and Kibble. My personal opinion is that it was condensed matter theorist Philip Anderson who first understood and described the Higgs mechanism, quite a while before anyone else.
Sample’s book is full of wonderful stories about particle physics, and alludes to some that he can’t give the details of:
On June 8,1978, Adams marked the achievement in extraordinary fashion. He jotted down a poem about Rubbia and Van der Meer’s efforts and sent it out as a memo. The poem — too offensive to reprint here — suggested that Rubbia had exploited van der Meer’s brilliance to further his own career.
The footnote to this says that the memo is in the CERN archive, dated June 8,1978 and entitled “Approval of ppbar facility”.
One of the later parts of the story involves the discussion of Higgs rumors on particle physics blogs, and debates among the experimental collaborations about this. With a little bit of luck, we may hope to see more of this soon.
All in all, the book is a great read, by far this year’s best popular book that could be recommended to lay people who want some idea of what’s going on in particle physics now and why it is exciting.