Web edition: January 14, 2011
Print edition: January 29, 2011; Vol.179 #3 (p. 30)
The only thing more elusive than the Higgs boson, the so-called “God particle” that physicists built a $10 billion device to capture, is Peter Higgs himself.
The Scottish physicist first imagined 47 years ago that a new particle was needed to explain how other particles get their mass. Newspapers and TV stations have barraged Higgs with phone calls in recent years as particle accelerators get closer to finding the particle, but the retired professor ignores the ringing unless he’s expecting a call. He doesn’t bother with e-mail.
Massive has achieved the journalistic equivalent of capturing the particle: The story pins down how a young Higgs, disenchanted with the use of atomic physics for weapons, came to propose a new type of particle that solved a snafu in a theory on symmetries. The theoretical seed Higgs planted, which five other physicists independently derived in 1964 but without as much credit, steadily began to bear fruit as it was invoked to complete physicists’ “standard model” of particles and forces.
The race was on to find the particles that the theory predicted. American and European accelerator labs competed to build a machine powerful enough to find the Higgs boson, along with other elementary particles. It wasn’t long before Higgs felt like his idea had taken off and left him behind. After decades of progressively higher-energy machines on both sides of the Atlantic, and heartbreaking funding decisions, the Higgs-finding machine called the Large Hadron Collider was eventually turned on in 2008.
Massive offers a larger window into the minds that dreamed of the Higgs and the culture that shaped their search, not a text to explain the basics of modern physics, and is accessible for the curious science layperson.
Basic Books, 2010, 260 p., $25.95.