The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World, by Sean Carroll

I love physics and general science. My problem is that I suck at math (English major) and even general science books dealing with quantum physics and particle physics can get super … number-y.

This book was written not long after the Large Hadron Collider in Bern, Switzerland, announced that they had finally seen the evidence of the Higgs Boson particle that had been predicted 50 years earlier. It is the most plain-English explanation of the so-called “God particle” I’ve read to date. Sean Carroll has a teacher’s touch, using easy-to-understand metaphors and analogies to explain just what’s happening at what, so far, are the smallest things we can conceive of.

Carroll starts out with a basic description of the Large Hadron Collider, mostly funded by nations within the European Union with a $2-billion contribution from the US when Congress failed to fund a similar program here. He talks about the challenges in constructing what is mostly a donut-shaped tube with immense magnets cooled to a temperature lower than what you’d find in deep space. That tube is used to speed particles to just a few hundredths of a percentage point short of the speed of light, allowing them to collide and break into smaller particles. The challenge is then to capture the image of little particles that can disappear in less than a trillionth of a second, and then to do a statistical analysis of thousands of these collisions to determine with certainty what they’re seeing. (I’m trying to distill this to the bare minimum of what a whole book describes in brilliant detail.)

The author also gives a basic history of the physics discoveries leading to finding this particle, which is evidence of a field that exists throughout the universe. He discusses the reason it ended up being called “God particle”, which made an easy hook for journalists to build interest in stories on the project. Best of all, perhaps, is he talks about how science develops an idea, tests it, and either dismisses it or begins to develop better and better evidence. Lastly he is clear that this is not the end of physics. There are still things we don’t understand, other particles to discover (a new one was announced just a week before this is being written), and further challenges for science.

So along with being a very readable book on a complicated subject it is also an explanation and celebration of science and scientific curiosity in general. Were I richer, and convinced they could read, I’d send a copy to every member of Congress. While the scientific community is better at overlooking political map boundaries than most of us it still seems embarrassing that we’re ceding a competitive scientific spirit to the rest of the world.