Smashing Physics

I recently finally found a copy of Jon Butterworth’s Smashing Physics, which came out in the UK a few months ago, but still hasn’t made it to the US. As far as I know it’s the first book about the Higgs written by someone actually involved in the LHC experiments. While there are several books already out there that do a good job of explaining the Higgs story (see for instance here) this one is a great read, giving a lively picture of what it was like to be involved in one of the experiments that made the discovery.

The book is structured as a bit of a travelogue, traveling through space to CERN and to various conferences, through time as the ATLAS LHC experiment unfolded, with physics explanations interspersed. A reviewer at New Scientist didn’t like this, but I think the personal and idiosyncratic approach works well. We’re given here not the highly processed take of a professional science writer, but a picture of what this sort of professional life is actually like for one specific scientist, from what happens in collaboration meetings, to an overnight spree on the Reeperbahn.

The perspective is definitely British (a lot of drinking goes on, with a scornful observation of American couples at a French bistro “drinking water”), and includes a fair amount of material about recent science funding problems in Britain. Butterworth’s comments are often to the point, if sometimes impolitic. For instance, about the “God Particle” business, there’s a footnote:

Yes, I know Lederman claims he wanted to call it The Goddamn Particle and blames his publishers for the change. But my publishers wanted to call this book something really silly, and I managed to stop them.

For readers who know nothing about the physics involved, this book may not be the right place to start, with the well-known scientific story not getting a detailed treatment, and little in the way of graphics besides some Feynman diagrams. On the other hand, if you’ve read one of the other books about the Higgs, Butterworth takes you a lot deeper into the subject of LHC physics, including some extensive material on his work on boosted objects and jet substructure, which may lead to important results in future LHC analyses. If you like your science non-abstract and human, this is a great place to learn about the Higgs discovery story.

There’s a quite positive review in the Guardian by Graham Farmelo, which describes the book well. That review though contains (like another review and like his wonderful book on Dirac) some odd material about string theory, in this case a long paragraph defending the theory, and telling us that “he [Butterworth] and his fellow sceptics will be proved wrong in the long term.” Actually there’s very little about string theory in the book other than some sensible comments about being more interested in things experimentally testable. Like Tom Siegfried, it seems some science journalists are likely to always be unwilling to admit that they were sold goods that didn’t turn out to work as advertised, and uncomprehending that most physicists, like Butterworth, never were buyers.

I gather the book may appear here in the US early next year, hope it gets some attention then.

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5 Responses to Smashing Physics

  1. Marc C says:

    The book is already available on Audible. The narrator is English and it makes the stories and day-to-day living stuff a lot of fun. The technical stuff is hit or miss as a good portion of it takes a bit more contemplation (rereading, connecting it in your head). Still, I would recommend it. . . Just be ready to buy the book too so you can ‘get’ the details.
    The modeling and how that relates to the detector info was really insightful.
    Thanks for te review and the site Peter

  2. srp says:

    I just reread The Double Helix for the first time in a while, and Watson’s personal point of view certainly enhanced that book. If you like good-natured (if slightly dated) international stereotyping between Brits, Americans, and even the French, it’s good for that, too–but I think Watson had no trouble drinking along with his counterparts…

  3. Dom says:

    I first saw Butterworth in this series of films “Hunting the Higgs” where he comes over as a proper bloke. Hunting The Higgs

    I liked his statement in the Guardian recently
    “I didn’t believe in the Higgs boson when I started work on the LHC, (as I describe near the start of Smashing Physics)” Guardian Link

  4. Timothy says:

    You can always buy the book used on Amazon from the UK, if you don’t want to wait for its US debut. They also have “new” options on Amazon.

  5. Curious Mayhem says:

    Isn’t it great that many — nay, most — physicists were not “buyers” of string theory? That’s that wedge that string theory has driven between certain areas of theoretical physics and the rest of science. When you enter Stringworld, you suspend ordinary scientific standards.

    And I’m glad an experimentalist didn’t believe in the Higgs boson before he started at LHC. Theorists believed in the Higgs boson, or something very like it, for very good reasons. But proper experimentalists try to see it for themselves, whatever the theoretical rationale. They don’t sit at the edge of convoluted cultish rationalizations and think, “Well, I’m just too dumb to understand this.”

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