Dr. Fred Bortz

Massive: The Missing Particle That Sparked the Greatest Hunt in Science

by Ian Sample

(Basic Books, 2010, $25.95, 320 pages)


Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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In a twelve-foot diameter, 17-mile long circular tunnel beneath the Alps that crosses the French-Swiss border four times, an event that might be called the physicist's version of Demolition Derby is playing out. In one direction, a beam of protons travels at approximately 99.999999 percent of the speed of light. In the opposite direction whizzes another equally energetic proton beam.

The two beams collide head-on in chambers where sophisticated detectors capture the path of each piece of debris for later analysis by international teams of physicists. The tunnel and its equipment make up the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the latest and most ambitious successor to the dinner plate-sized "atom-smasher" called the cyclotron that came on line in 1939.

British science writer Ian Sample's newest book, Massive: The Missing Particle that Sparked the Greatest Hunt in Science, relates the scientific and human history behind the LHC. "This book is the story of how the universe got its mass, and how an idea written down in a notebook nearly half a century ago became the focus of a global, multibillion-dollar hunt involving thousands of scientists and the largest, most complex machines ever built," he writes. "Whichever way you look at it, this story is massive."

A subatomic collision is like the reverse of a nuclear explosion. Instead of transforming mass into energy, it converts some of the energy of the colliding particles into matter. The outgoing particles have greater total mass than the incoming ones.

For a given collision, the exact constituents of the debris are not predetermined. Yet they are predictable in this sense: the laws of particle physics and quantum mechanics allow for a varied set of outcomes, each of which occurs with a certain probability.

Physicists think they understand those laws, but there is an important question addressed in theory that still awaits experimental confirmation. What is the origin of the masses of the various particles that make up the so-called Standard Model of particle physics? Why should particles have mass at all?

A famous 1964 journal article by Peter Higgs proposed an innovative answer: A yet to be detected field pervades all space, and particles gain their mass by interacting with it. As with other fields in physics, that interaction takes place through the exchange of particles known as gauge bosons.

Other researchers came up with similar ideas at the same time, and Higgs has long since moved on to other areas of research. But his name is firmly attached to the quest that he helped launch. For that reason, Sample structures his narrative around Higgs' life and career.

The focus on Peter Higgs may chagrin those other researchers, who are probably weary of having their names lost in the glare of Higgs'. But that is an important example of the human story that Sample weaves in parallel to the scientific one.

Most physicists expect that when the LHC reaches full power in the next year or two, it is likely to confirm the existence of the Higgs boson and the Higgs field. If it does--as Sample seems to expect--the likely outcome is a Nobel Prize for Higgs and the researchers who find his eponymous particle.

But if Higgs' prediction turns out to be a dead end, what Sample calls "the greatest hunt in science" will veer off in a new direction. Physicists will have to consider a replacement for the Standard Model, and authors like Sample will have new science and new human stories to share with their readers.

Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of 19 science books for young readers, including Seven Wonders of Exploration Technology, which culminates with a chapter about the Large Hadron Collider.