The Particle at the End of the Universe [Book Review]

As is states on the cover “How the hunt for the Higgs Boson leads us to the edge of a new world,” you can easily tell what the book is about. However, in the book, written by Sean Carroll, this only takes up about half of the book. The flip side, which is interwoven quite well, is what I would call a beginner’s primer on particle physics.

Here’s a cliff notes version of the primer:

  • Quantum Mechanics – The world is made of of “things” (let’s just call them particles for now) that can either act as objects or waves based on its setting. If it’s left alone, it’s a wave; it it’s observed or measured, it’s more like a spatially localized unit.
  • Particle Physics – These particles can either be fermions (particles that exhibit mass – quarks / leptons / neutrinos) and bosons (particles that typically don’t have mass – photons / gluon / graviton).
  • Quantum Field Theory – The idea that these particles are actually a disturbance (or waves) in their appropriate field (which is typically at 0 energy), which more massive particles appearing as more tightly confined “wavelets” in space.
  • The Weak Force – The fourth force of nature, which is responsible for nuclear decay (and also one of the hardest to explain!). However, it’s associated bosons (W/Z’s) DO have mass. Thus, causing friction in older theories and a search for WHY.
  • The Higgs Field – There is a special field that isn’t at 0 energy (almost like how the Earth’s atmosphere isn’t a vacuum like in space, it can be measured in atmosphere pressure > 0).  This field, almost like the universe’s resistance, gives fermions and W/Z bosons mass (but unlike our atmosphere, the particles don’t decelerate).
  • The Higgs Boson – And like all the other fields, you can create a disturbance in the Higgs field, which will result in the “temporary” creation of the Higgs Boson particle.

Got all that? Don’t worry, I’m still trying to wrap my mind about it too.

So the whole idea of the Higgs Boson, as you can see in the trail of theories above, is to prove that the Higgs field exists to back up our current theory called “The Standard Model.” To many particle physicists, this is both exciting and BORING at the same time. The Standard Model has been around for almost 50 years, and every experiment has been like ” …..yep, nothing new here. Let’s move along.” They would like to see a new revolution, but their princess is in another castle.

But the book doesn’t just throw you under the bus, deep into these theories, until after it lays down a brief history of Large Hadron Collider and the politics and construction drama that occurred along the way. But important of all, it really gives you a sense of passion behind the topic. The people involved, the reasoning behind the scientist’s motives, and an overall impression on our international culture towards science and technology.

It’s not like “finding the Higgs Boson” is going to lead us to new technology in the near future, a term constantly re-phrased as “When do I get my jet pack?”. It was a massive money “sink”, requiring billions of tax payer dollars from many different countries and ethnicities. But science is one of the few successful topics that the human race as a whole can come together and show (almost) non-conditional cooperation and successfully come to a productive (and relatively efficient) process and actually deliver results. The book lists a famous quote from Robert Wilson used during the fund hearings for the project:

“It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of man, our love of culture. It has to do with: Are good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.”

From the book’s perspective, they interweave these “Reasoning of Why,” at the beginning, end, and within the technical theory behind particle physics. To constantly help pull you through the “textbook-like” chapters. To be truthfully honest, the difficulty in ready didn’t hinder my progress until I hit chapter 11 (which I’m going to have to re-re-read at some point). While much may be over the average reader’s head (since not everyone has the time and patience to get their graduate degree in advanced physics), the theory is just as important as the political and historical story painted behind this research.

A good read, and a nice reference (including appendix chapters) in case I have to refresh myself on any of these topics. Thank you Sean.

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