‘God par­ti­cle’ book a brain-buster

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Chris Rutkowski

STRAD­DLING the bor­der be­tween France and Switzer­land is an enor­mous par­ti­cle ac­cel­er­a­tor 27 kilo­me­tres in cir­cum­fer­ence, about 100 me­tres be­low the sur­face of the Earth. This is the Large Hadron Col­lider (LHC) at the Or­gan­i­sa­tion eu­ropéenne pour la recherche nu­cléaire — bet­ter known as CERN — where the In­ter­net as we know it to­day was first cre­ated. In­side this mon­stros­ity of a ma­chine is a con­crete tun­nel in which beams of par­ti­cles travel in a set of two pipes at enor­mous speeds, zip­ping around the track 11,000 times each sec­ond and col­lid­ing, gen­er­at­ing en­ergy. This is the play­ground for par­ti­cle physi­cists such as John Mof­fat, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of physics at the Univer­sity of Toronto and a se­nior re­searcher at the Perime­ter In­sti­tute for The­o­ret­i­cal Physics in Water­loo. In Cracking the Par­ti­cle Code of the Uni­verse, Mof­fat ques­tions the holy grail of physics: the so-called “God par­ti­cle.” This is the elu­sive “Higgs bo­son” that is the­o­rized to give ev­ery­thing in the uni­verse its mass, and would ef­fec­tively unify the four main forces in na­ture: elec­tro­mag­netism, grav­ity and the “strong” and “weak” forces in­side atoms. In 2012, Euro­pean physi­cists an­nounced they may have found the Higgs bo­son, but Mof­fat doubts it ex­ists. To ex­plain his reser­va­tions about the claimed suc­cess by CERN physi­cists, Mof­fat takes the reader on a grand tour de force, giv­ing es­sen­tially a com­plete grad­u­ate sem­i­nar in par­ti­cle physics. Along the way, we learn about the ba­sic con­stituents of mat­ter and the myr­iad sub­atomic par­ti­cles that make up you and me. There are quarks of dif­fer­ent colours and flavours (al­though these at­tributes only de­scribe dif­fer­ent kinds of par­ti­cles, not the way they ac­tu­ally taste), some with spins and some with charges — and then there are the an­tipar­ti­cles of each of them. Cracking the Par­ti­cle Code of the Uni­verse at­tempts to make the vi­su­al­iza­tions of the par­ti­cle in­ter­ac­tions and collisions more un­der­stand­able through the use of graphs and draw­ings, in­clud­ing vec­tors and Feyn­man di­a­grams, but the text is re­ally de­signed for aca­demics with some pre­vi­ous knowl­edge of physics, al­though some ad­vanced ca­sual sci­ence read­ers will be able to fol­low his dis­cus­sion. The more ac­ces­si­ble por­tions of Mof­fat’s book give in­sight into his per­sonal views, such as his cau­tion that physi­cists come to their field with a cer­tain amount of bias that re­veals their hu­man sides. Mof­fat also notes that the search for the Higgs bo­son is an eco­nomic is­sue, since the quest in­volves fund­ing for not only physi­cists at CERN but also re­searchers around the world whose work is de­pen­dent on the elu­sive par­ti­cle. He ex­plains in de­tail how the search for a new par­ti­cle is so de­pen­dent on the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of data stream­ing from a mul­ti­tude of sen­si­tive de­tec­tors buried within the LHC de­vice, and of physi­cists’ ad­vo­cacy for one in­ter­pre­ta­tion of a faint sig­nal over an­other. Mof­fat’s own the­ory of par­ti­cle unity in­cludes a par­ti­cle he calls “quarko­nium,” which solves some of the charge-and-spin is­sues that have been ham­per­ing the search for the Higgs. Yet he also ac­knowl­edges that the nondis­cov­ery of the Higgs bo­son may not be the end of par­ti­cle physics if a uni­fi­ca­tion par­ti­cle can­not be found, as he notes a revo­lu­tion in physics might be a good thing, af­ter all. There are other prob­lems in physics to solve that may keep CERN funded and run­ning for years to come. In 2013, Peter Higgs was awarded the No­bel Prize in physics for the dis­cov­ery of the Higgs bo­son. But Mof­fat finds it “dis­turb­ing” that the cal­cu­lated en­er­gies and pa­ram­e­ters of the newly dis­cov­ered par­ti­cle don’t match well with physi­cists’ pre­dic­tions. CERN is un­der­go­ing main­te­nance for the next year or so. Per­haps in 2015, Mof­fat may be vin­di­cated. Chris Rutkowski is a sci­ence writer

in Win­nipeg.

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