CERN and the quest for understanding nature’s workings
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Butterworth shows that the conven- tional image of experimenters working alone in a laboratory has long been superseded by huge international teams, in which individuals struggle to make their mark.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