Skip to main content

Cracking the Particle Code of the Universe – John Moffat ****

I’ll be honest, when I saw this book I thought ‘Oh no, not another book about the hunt for the Higgs boson,’ and so put off reading it for a long while, but it fact it is far from another me-too book. If you want a good, straightforward book about the what the Higgs is and the basics of the hunt, you should head straight for Higgs by Jim Baggott, but Cracking the Particle Code is quite a different beast.
Two things make this book stand out. One is the author’s personal involvement in the field over a long period, and the other is that he is brave enough not to take the simplistic stance that we’ve found the Higgs and it’s all over, but rather to point out that things are a lot more complicated than the press releases from CERN would suggest, and that there is certainly no sense in which we can say that the standard model is complete and particle physics is signed off. In fact, as Moffat shows, it is entirely possible to generate masses using quantum field theory without the complication of a Higgs boson. He may be a minority voice – but there is certainly a lot that’s interesting about this alternative view.
The book isn’t dominated by Moffat’s own theory as he takes us through the hunt for the Higgs and the implications of the discoveries made at CERN – but equally, lacking the usual need to bolster a career that means once a theory gains enough followers it becomes gospel until there’s a major shift (Fred Hoyle likened such physicists to a flock of geese), Moffat is able to give us a uniquely balanced viewpoint.
It isn’t the easiest read – although in some ways he gives one of the best explanations of symmetry breaking (something that rarely makes sense in popular attempts to explain it as it is dependent on a mathematical world rather than anything observed), his science does crack along at a pace that requires a fair amount of application of a piece of advice I received early on while an undergraduate studying physics when my supervisor said that the only way to cope is not to panic when you don’t understand – let it flow over you, and gradually it will make sense.
If you are happy to take that approach, then I can’t recommend this book too highly. If you want an easy, hand-held read, though, look elsewhere.

Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Conjuring the Universe - Peter Atkins *****

It's rare that I'd use the term 'tour de force' when describing a popular science book, but it sprang to mind when I read Conjuring the Universe. It's not that the book's without flaws, but it does something truly original in a delightful way. What's more, the very British Peter Atkins hasn't fallen into the trap that particularly seems to influence US scientists when writing science books for the public of assuming that more is better. Instead of being an unwieldy brick of a book, this is a compact 168 pages that delivers splendidly on the question of where the natural laws came from.

The most obvious comparison is Richard Feynman's (equally compact) The Character of Physical Law - but despite being a great fan of Feynman's, this is the better book. Atkins begins by envisaging a universe emerging from absolutely nothing. While admitting he can't explain how that happened, his newly created universe still bears many resemblances to  nothing a…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Big Bang (Ladybird Expert) - Marcus Chown ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Marcus Chown does a remarkable job at packing in information on the big bang, given only around 25 sides of small format paper to work with. He gives us the concepts, plenty about the cosmic microwave background, plus the likes of dark energy, dark matter, inflation and the multiverse. To be honest, the illustrations were largely pointless, apart from maintaining the format, and it might have been better to have had more text - but I felt …