I’ve just finished physicist Sean Carroll’s new book, The Particle at the End of the Universe (subtitled: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World), and want to give it two thumbs up. As far as I know, it’s the only popular account of the Higgs Hunt in book form, but even if it weren’t I’d recommend it as a lucid description of the meaning of the Higgs boson, how it fits into the Standard Model of particle physics, and as an engaging account of how the LHC was built and the interactions between the colorful personalities involved in the search (many of them were interviewed for the book).
I have to admit that although Carroll writes extremely clearly and knows his material inside out, it’s occasionally heavy going, but that’s because of the nature of the material. To understand the meaning of the Higgs boson, and why finding it was so important, you have to know how it fits into the Standard Model, and what other particles are involved in that model. That means learning about fermions, bosons, quarks, and their properties and interactions; and even as a scientist I had to concentrate hard on the text. But the payoff is large: the reader comes away with a feeling that she now knows why the hunt for that particle was so important. (See the many positive reviews on Amazon for confirmation.)
I particularly liked Carroll’s last chapter, “Making it worth defending,” which explains why physicists invested so much time and money in hunting for a particle that doesn’t have obvious practical applications. Yes, there might be technological spinoffs, as there was with other work on particle physics (the Internet originated with physicists’ need to access each other’s data), but in the main Carroll extols the virtue of simple curiosity:
At heart, science is the quest for awesome—the literal awe that you feel when you understand something profound for the first time. It’s a feeling we are all born with, although it often gets lost as we grow up and more mundane concerns take over our lives. When a big event happens, like the discovery of the Higgs boson at the LHC, that child-like curiosity in all of us comes to the fore once again. It took thousands of people to build the LHC and its experiments and to analyze the data that led to that discovery, but the accomplishment belongs to everyone who is interested in the enterprise.
Mohammed Yahia writes Nature magazine’s House of Wisdom blog, dedicated to science in the Middle East. After the July 4 seminars announcing the discovery of the Higgs, he celebrated the universality of the scientific impulse:
As people across the Arab world are all dealing with their politics, revolution, human rights issues and uprisings, science speaks to all of us equally and we become one. The only two human endeavors that are cross-boundary at this massive scale are art and science.
Compare that to religion, where there is no commonality of understanding or “knowledge”!
Carroll’s last chapter reminds me of a quote from H. L. Mencken’s Prejudices:
The value the world sets upon motives is often grossly unjust and inaccurate. Consider, for example, two of them: mere insatiable curiosity and the desire to do good. The latter is put high above the former, and yet it is the former that moves some of the greatest men the human race has yet produced: the scientific investigators. What animates a great pathologist? Is it the desire to cure disease, to save life? Surely not, save perhaps as an afterthought. He is too intelligent, deep down in his soul, to see anything praiseworthy in such a desire. He knows by life-long observation that his discoveries will do quite as much harm as good, that a thousand scoundrels will profit to every honest man, that the folks who most deserve to be saved will probably be the last to be saved. No man of self-respect could devote himself to pathology on such terms. What actually moves him is his unquenchable curiosity–his boundless, almost pathological thirst to penetrate the unknown, to uncover the secret, to find out what has not been found out before. His prototype is not the liberator releasing slaves, the good Samaritan lifting up the fallen, but the dog sniffing tremendously at an infinite series of rat-holes.
Carroll has it right: particle physics—like evolutionary biology—is akin to art. There aren’t many practical applications in terms of making people rich or healthy, but they’re both fulfilling in helping us understand our world and in feeling a commonality with others. Stretching our minds, whether it involves knowing how the universe works or putting oneself in another’s shoes, is one of the great luxuries of humanity now that (largely by virtue of science!) we’re freed from the drudgery, misery, and short lives of our ancestors. And it’s worth spending money on: public money, for we all benefit from it. Granted, there’s a limit to how much society can afford (the LHC cost about $6 billion dollars to build, and the running expenses are about $25 million per year).
I have been extraordinarily lucky to have a job I love, in which nobody tells me what to do except myself. Most people aren’t that fortunate. And I’m doubly fortunate that my job—my research—is underwritten by the largesse of American taxpayers: the grants given by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation to fund my studies.
And when you’re that fortunate, you feel a debt that should be repaid. Carroll and I both try to do that, in part, by making our fields accessible to the people who finance us. We write.