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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