Book Review: Collider

Collider: The Search for the World’s Smallest Particles by Paul Halpern

Targeted at the interested lay audience, Collider is a decent introduction to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and, more interestingly for me, an overview of the history of particle colliders. After a whirlwind tour of the history of physics and the search for fundamental forces, we are treated to the stories of the earliest accelerators (really tabletop affairs), through larger machines that produced more fundamental particles, to the large successful colliders like the Tevatron and the Super Proton Synchrotron, the failure of the Superconducting Super Collider to materialize, and ultimately to nearly the present day (2010 for the paperback edition) with the LHC up and running.

Along the way the nature of the fundamental forces is examined, with particles passing other particles between them, and the trend towards unification of seemingly disparate forces like electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force. It’s already of course a bit dated in that a new boson, which is widely suspected to be the Higgs, has been found only a short time after its writing, but Halpern still covers the basics well. I was thinking while reading it that it would be a good book to lend to family members and friends who wanted to know what all the fuss is about.

Some more exotic topics such as branes, dark matter, and microscopic black holes (which I’m doing some undergraduate research on this summer) are dealt with near the end. The conclusion looks forward to the future of particle physics, where the book takes on a more somber tone with budget squeezes possibly freezing out big physics. However, the enormous media coverage attendant with the new boson discovery shows, I think, how popular fundamental science still is, and hopefully is a sign that the next major projects (a luminosity upgrade for the LHC called the Super LHC and a new International Linear Collider) will be funded and constructed. Rather than the melancholy outlook of Collider, particle physics may be entering a decades-long golden age.

If you want to know more about the history of colliders and the LHC in particular, with an overview of the physics involved in its operation, I think Collider is a good entry point (how often can a man put the word “collider” in a review?).

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