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Significance of CERN

Books>> Smashing Physics • by Jon Butterworth • Headline Press • Rs 700 (Kindle edition) and The Particle At The End Of The Universe • by Sean Carroll • One World • Rs 335

By Rohit Vijayakar
Published: Saturday 31 May 2014

bookWhen the Cambridge physicist J J Thomson discovered the first subatomic particle, the electron, only a few people outside academic circles cared for his discovery. Still fewer realised the significance of his achievement. The electron was discovered in 1897 using an apparatus that cost only a few thousand US dollars at today’s prices. More than a century later, it was a very different story when scientists at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland announced the discovery of the latest subatomic particle—the Higgs boson or the Higgs particle named after the Edinburgh University theoretician Peter Higgs. On July 4, 2012, hundreds had queued for hours for the 9 am event; many had camped out all night. Journalists from across the globe thronged CERN. The cost this time was nine billion dollars.

Jon Butterworth was one of the physicists involved in the CERN endeavour. In Smashing Physics, Butterworth explains why he and his colleagues are so curious about the sub-atomic world. He gives a vivid glimpse of life on a huge international project in modern experimental particle physics. Besides CERN, Butterworth talks about several international deliberations on the Higgs boson and introduces us to quite a few of his colleagues involved in the endeavour.

Butterworth shows that the conventional image of experimenters working alone in a laboratory has long been superseded by huge international teams, in which individuals struggle to make their mark. Smashing Physics is also the story of doubts, of fear that the world’s most expensive experiment might blow, of neutrinos that may or may not travel faster than light, and the reality of life in an underground bunker in Switzerland. Butterworth is an engaging guide, generous to all his colleagues, especially in the media—“We should be more forgiving of some of the excitable headlines”—but is sometimes a tad harsh on theoreticians.

“Experimentalists get ignored if they are right… and hugely cited if they are wrong,” he writes, whereas “Theorists are ignored if they are wrong, but get a Nobel prize if they are right.” This reviewer feels that theorists soon find themselves on the scrapheap if they are trivial, let alone wrong.

Butterworth himself comes across as both a team player and a gifted individual, capable of doing first-class research; he is also a first-rate populariser. This rare talent is handsomely on display in his chronicle of one of the most exciting fields of human endeavour.

Sean Carroll’s The Particle At the End of the Universe is less of an insider’s account—Carroll has been involved in the experiments on the Higgs boson, but his engagement has been sporadic. The Caltech scientist writes about the significance of the project. The experiment is unlikely to bring wealth or vast industrial returns. But Carroll argues, “Basic science might not lead to immediate improvements in national defence or a cure for cancer but it enriches our lives by teaching us something about the universe of which we are a part.”

The CERN experiment is unlikely to bring vast industrial gains but it enriches our lives by teaching us something about the universe

But then what have we learned from the billions of dollars invested in particle physics? What cultural benefits have they brought? A great deal, says Carroll. We now know that sub-atomic particles come in two varieties: fermions that make up matter, and bosons that carry forces. The latter include gluons, photons, gravitons (which carry gravity) and of course the Higgs. The former, the fermions, include leptons such as the electron and quarks.

Carroll shows these particles, forces and processes combine in highly complex, intricate ways, often inducing numbing incomprehension. Here he has words of caution. “What has been found is evidence for a very Higgs-like particle: It has the right mass, it is produced and decays in roughly the expected ways.” But there are still possibilities of the unexpected. “Like Hollywood celebrities or charismatic politicians, scientific theories are put on a pedestal just so we can tear them down”.

This brings us to another great virtue of Carroll’s work. The Higgs boson might be the most misrepresented particle in the universe. Ask a person with lay interest in physics about Higgs boson and you are likely to be told that it is the source of mass in the universe. That’s what most of us read in newspapers, or even have heard a well-known physicist say on television. This, however, is completely wrong, as Carroll points out. Contrary to popular conception, the Higgs boson is not the source of all our mass. If the Higgs suddenly ceased to exist, you wouldn’t lose much weight. But you cannot do without it altogether. Carroll shows that Higgs does make a significant contribution to the mass of the electron, and a lighter electron would undo all the chemical bonds in your body, causing you to explode. He reiterates that scientists like Butterworth spend sleepless nights at the CERN endeavour not because it was ever going to be directly useful, “but because discovering exactly how nature works is a quest that leads to all sorts of good places”.

The search for the Higgs particle has been likened to looking for a needle in a haystack. If all the data generated at CERN is stored on CDs, it would fill more than a million discs. To overcome this problem detectors are designed to select data passed on for storage. Carroll describes this painstaking process in great detail. He introduces us to physicists such as Peter Higgs, François Englert, Robert Brout, Carl Richard Hagen, Gerald Guralnik and Tom Kibble, all of whom did groundbreaking work in the early 1960s positing the existence of such a particle—postulations that took nearly half a century to bear out.

The Particle At the End of the Universe reveals that modern physics at the cutting edge requires extraordinary devotion and a willingness to bet high stakes in search of unique rewards. As Carroll says, “When it all comes together, the world changes.”

The book also traces the politics and the economics of the CERN experiment, built with international money and participation. “Over and over again,” Carroll writes, “physicists I talked to while writing this book spoke… about how CERN could serve as a model for large-scale international collaboration.” One tells him, “What’s amazing to me is that we have people from 70 countries around the world working—together. Palestinians and Israelis working side-by-side, Iranians and Iraqi scientists work together—such collaboration in the pursuit of big science shouldn’t be overlooked.”

Smashing Physics and The Particle At the End of the Universe describe a lot of complex physics. There is much in both the books that will prove difficult to the lay reader. But there is also much in them that will kindle a love for the world of atoms and electrons in many a reader.

Rohit Vijayakar, who works in a gaming company in Bengaluru, describes himself as a physics buff

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