Monday, 12 May 2014

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:  
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Review by Brian Clegg

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