CERN and the quest for un­der­stand­ing na­ture’s work­ings

Down to Earth - - CONTENTS -

When 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 con­ven- tional 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

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

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