Thursday, 23 November 2006

The God Particle – Leon M. Lederman & Dick Teresi ****

 I have something of an embarrassing confession to make. When I titled my book on quantum entanglement The God Effect, not only had I not read Leon Lederman and Dick Teresi’s book, I had never even heard of it. I had, however, seen the hypothetical particle the Higgs boson referred to as ‘the god particle’ in the press, and it was this term that inspired my title.

The hook that The God Particle hangs on is this yet-to-be-confirmed particle that may be responsible for the mass of the other, more familiar particles, and it does give some information about it at the end, but this book is much, much more. Actually almost too much more. It is densely packed with information – you come out of the end feeling like you’ve been on an undergraduate course without the equations, though to be fair, it’s a very good undergraduate course, one of those where you think you are really lucky because the lecturer is witty and fun to listen to, even when you don’t quite follow what he’s talking about.

What The God Particle will give you is a superb introduction to the way the particles that make up matter were gradually broken down and understood, and how the “standard model” came into being. I have never seen another description that gives such great insights – helped, no doubt because Lederman was in there getting his hands dirty, and has the Nobel prize to prove it.
I felt I had to keep reading this book, even though it is really rather over-long. Lederman and Teresi’s description of all the different accelerators in the middle of the book becomes a little tedious after a while, but there is always enough in there to keep you interested, and there’s no doubt that you get a feel for big science from the coal face.
The book is now quite old – written in 1993 – but the historical aspects of its content are unchanged by this, as is much of the particle physics. It is, perhaps unfortunate that in his national pride, Lederman makes a big thing of the the Superconducting Super Collider at Waxahachie in Texas, even showing a timeline from Democritus’s Miletus (where the atom was first postulated) running all the way through via Burger King (there’s always humour here) to Waxahachie. It’s unfortunate because after the book was written and after Lederman’s hilarious efforts to get a video explaining the need for the accelerator dumbed down enough for Ronald Regan to understand it, the project was cancelled, leaving CERN in Europe to take over the lead (though at the time of writing, still not being there on the Higgs boson). There is also an excruciatingly bad bit of prediction of how things will be different in the laboratory of 2020, not exactly that far ahead any more – but these can be forgiven. The God Particle is an essential for anyone who wants to understand modern particle physics and where it has come from.
Review by Brian Clegg