Book Review: Collider by Paul Halpern

From the outset, it has to be said that the book is already a little out of date. First published in 2009, the version being reviewed was published in 2010 with a revised preface. As such, while there is much talk about the search for the Higgs boson, the book doesn’t include the detail of the research that culminated in the announcement in July 2012 of the confirmation of its existence. I do not know if the book is to be further revised or if the author intends a follow-up to include an account of the latest research.

With that forewarning, I ought to move on to what the book does contain, rather than what it doesn’t. It is the story of particle physics and the machines that have been built in order to test the theories. Since I was a teenager, I was long fascinated by the fundamental constituents of the universe. I was able to follow this through by continuing to study physics through A-levels and on into university. For someone like me, this is a great book. However, for those who aren’t interested in fundamental physics, I doubt it will be of much interest.

The scope of the book is very broad, ranging from the testing of the “plum pudding” model of the atom through to brane-world scenarios and Hawking radiation of black holes. With such breadth, it is inevitable that the technical depth is, to some extent, lost. Halpern doesn’t provide the reader with many equations, tables or technical diagrams, though a few more wouldn’t have been amiss in my opinion, especially with regard to Feynman diagrams which are described but not shown.

In telling the history of particle accelerators, there is a political history thrown in, which is unusual for a physics book but which is not an unwelcome addition. The idea of the cost of such large scale accelerators in weaker economic times is certainly worth some consideration, especially when thinking of what other things public money might be spent on. In this aspect, the author does betray a slightly jingoistic bias; the reader being left in no doubt (if they were in any beforehand) that the author is an American, though the poor spelling gives this away in a few places. 

That slight criticism aside, however, this is a very engagingly written book, accessible to most lay readers. Though some of the detail has been omitted, I don’t think this hinders its readability too much. If anyone wished to get an introductory overview of particle physics, then this would be an excellent place to start.

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