21 January 2012


Frank Close. The Infinity Puzzle. Oxford University Press, 2011.

Described is the scientific journey taken by particle physicists, leading from the 1930s to today's experiments at CERN, where the Large Hadron Collider is attempting to detect the Higgs boson – suspected of giving other particles the property of mass. The book's title comes from a fundamental stumbling block encountered in the early part of the journey.
When trying to develop mathematical models to encompass three of Nature's forces – electromagnetism, the Weak Force and the Strong Force – physicists found that the value of certain terms in their equations kept becoming infinite, hence showing that the equations were wrong.

Frank Close, the author, is himself a particle physicist, familiar with the scientific papers published over the years. In writing the book he has fleshed-out details of the discovery trail by contacting many of the subject's key players and recording their recollections of seminal moments, and reading unpublished contemporary notes. It's a major review that illustrates the degree of intellectual effort required in advancing the subject, the competition between different researchers, the way knowledge infuses groups, the desire to be first to publish an idea and how unclear it can be, with hindsight, who really was first. Umpteen researchers won the Nobel Prize en route to the World's biggest experiment, at CERN, whilst other, seemingly equally deserving individuals, were bypassed. Also, the name Higgs boson is itself a misnomer. As Professor Higgs modestly points out, the group that essentially proposed the field now known as the Higgs field included five others. But although not fair on them, it is his name alone that the media insist on attaching to the most sought after particle.

A fascinating and well researched book that explains advances in particle physics over the last 80 years or so, largely without mathematics, in the context of the undoubtedly great physicists and engineers involved. It will be of interest to those working in the field and anyone wanting to know the scientific history behind the Higgs boson. -- David I. Simpson

No comments:

Post a Comment