The Higgs particle has been the main player in various popular books about particle physics since before many of today’s college students were born, with Lederman and Teresi’s The God Particle going back to 1993. Last year’s excellent The Infinity Puzzle by Frank Close (discussed here) was largely about the Higgs story, appearing just before the first experimental indications of the Higgs late last year.
I’m not the only one who was obsessively following the Higgs discovery story as it unfolded from last year until the final announcements this past July 4. Two of the others have already produced books on the topic: Jim Baggott’s Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ came out last month, Sean Carroll’s The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World, will be in stores next month.
I’ve just finished reading copies of both of them, and they’re both very good. They each cover the story of the Standard Model well, supplemented by extensive discussion of the Higgs discovery at the LHC and the background of how it came about. I confess that it’s a bit eerie to see a lot of things that were day-to-day news and often grist for the blog now packaged between hard-covers as history, while I’m also happy to see that a good job is being done of it.
Baggott’s book is quite a bit shorter, and has much more of a linear structure, taking the reader historically through the development of the Standard Model and its experimental tests, up through the LHC and the work of CMS and ATLAS that led to the Higgs discovery. You also get as a bonus a wonderful foreword by Steven Weinberg who, among other things, explains why quarks were not in his 1967 paper (he didn’t believe in them). If you want the quickest possible journey through this material, definitely choose this one.
Carroll’s effort is much longer, more non-linear and digressive. You get a significantly more in-depth version of parts of this story, with an organization that starts with the discovery and works outwards, explaining various topics needed to understand what this is all about, rather than following the line of historical development. I’m not really a good person to judge how this will work for those approaching this subject without a lot of background, but it seems to be as good a way as any to get readers into the subject. Among the topics Carroll has the space to cover in depth, he does a very good job with the history of the Higgs mechanism and the various claims to have done something Nobel-worthy, including the crucial role of Philip Anderson that often gets overlooked.
Since I’m known for my negativity, I’ll add a few criticisms here of these otherwise excellent books. Baggott goes with the “God Particle” business in his subtitle, presumably for the same excellent reason that Lederman used it: anything with “God” in it sells more books. One of Carroll’s digressions is about the “God Particle” business (he’s strongly against it and God in general) but his “Particle at the End of the Universe” replacement doesn’t seem to me to be much of an improvement. His subtitle and some of the jacket copy (“a doorway is opening into the extraordinary: the mind-boggling world of dark matter and beyond”) oversells a topic he wisely devotes no more than a couple pages to in the text of the book, so-called “Higgs portal” models of dark matter.
Both authors write fairly extensively about the role played by bloggers in spreading news and rumors during this recent period, and I make an appearance in both books. This caused me to go back and recall some of the details of how this played out. Both Baggott and Carroll describe how the abstract of an internal ATLAS note was anonymously posted on my blog (see here). Carroll’s version is slightly inaccurate, implying the entire memo was posted there, while it was only the abstract. The full note was sent to me privately by people who wanted me to have a better idea of what was going on, but I did not post that on the blog, and reading the full note made it pretty clear that while this wasn’t a hoax, it also wasn’t worth taking seriously. My impression is that the outraged reaction from various people at ATLAS to this leak was equal parts justifiable concern about keeping this kind of material confidential, and embarrassment about something this dubious seeing the light of day with the name of their collaboration on it. The unfolding of this story gave me a lot to think about, and I ended up deciding that I was definitely not comfortable being a public source of actual confidential documents, while at the same time seeing nothing wrong with providing accurate summary accounts of what the 3000 people in one of these large collaborations were all aware of and discussing. I offered to ATLAS people to remove the abstract if they asked me to, they decided it was best not to do this.
The first solid evidence for the Higgs that I heard about was in late November 2011 (see here and here), with a comment giving the right mass appearing at viXra log convincing me that the time had come to go public with some details. What was remarkable about this evidence was not that something was being seen at the 2-3 sigma level, but that both experiments were seeing something at almost the same mass value. This immediately convinced me that this was likely to be a Higgs signal, and the further details that came out over the next days up to the public announcement December 13 made for a rather strong case that the Higgs had been found.
In some sense the news this past summer was anti-climactic, just confirming that the strong 2011 evidence was the real thing. In early June news came from ATLAS that they were seeing the same gamma-gamma signal as in the 2011 data, just before I left for vacation (see here). When I got back from vacation, a lot more details showed that both experiments definitely had the thing in the bag. My posting about this got a lot of attention, including a link from the New York Times (where Dennis Overbye reported that Fabiola Gianotti of ATLAS was telling him “Please do not believe the blogs”).
All in all, I’m fairly happy with my decisions about what to write and what not to write on the blog about not-quite-public results about the Higgs. There’s been a certain amount of criticism about the terrible violations of confidentiality involved, but I can’t help pointing out that the things I was writing about were at the time known to the majority of the HEP community: the 6000 physicists on ATLAS and CMS. Carroll has this to to report about the confidentiality question:
I asked one physicist whether the results that ATLAS was getting were generally known within CMS, and vice versa. “Are you kidding?” I was told with a laugh. “Half of ATLAS is sleeping with half of CMS. Of course they know!”
For that quote, and many other stories worth reading about, if you’re the sort who loves popular books about particle physics, both of these are worth buying. If you’re only moderately interested, just pick one of the two and read it, you can’t go wrong…
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