Saturday, 30 May 2015

The God Particle (by Leon Lederman with Dick Teresi)

My rating: 9/10

The God Particle – If the Universe Is the Answer What Is the Question? (this is the full title) by Leon Lederman with Dick Teresi is an amazing book written in 1993, but still valid today.

There are many things I would like to write about The God Particle, but obviously I have to start with the title. Here’s what Lederman wrote in the preface to a new edition (2006):
     Now, as for the title, The God Particle, my co-author, Dick Teresi, has agreed to accept the blame (I paid him off). I mentioned the phrase as a joke once in a speech, and he remembered it and used it as the working title of the book. “Don’t worry,” he said, “no publisher ever uses the working title on the final book.” The rest is history. The title ended up offending two groups: 1) those who believe in God, and 2) those who do not. We were warmly received by those in the middle.

I am a religious person myself (Latin/Roman Catholic), but I didn’t have any trouble reading this book. It’s not about faith or a lack of faith of any people (physicists or readers). Basically it’s a beautifully told history of particle physics. The title particle – the Higgs boson – is described only in the chapter 8 that starts only at the page 342! This is the biggest drawback of the title – people who want to read only about the title particle will be disappointed.

What’s good:
1. Eye-opening info about old-time Greek philosophers.
Before reading this book I had had a rather low opinion about old-time Greek philosophers and I was really surprised that they pondered on the way the universe works. They were theoretical physicists of their time. Lederman describes it in an imaginary dialogue with Democritus. Here’s a small part of it:
LEDERMAN: What gave you the idea of atoms? It was, I must admit, a brilliant hypothesis. But it goes way beyond what went before.
DEMOCRITUS: Bread. (…) One day, during a prolonged fest, someone walked into my study carrying loaf of bread just out of the oven. I knew it was bread before I saw it. I thought: some invisible essence of bread traveled ahead and reached my Grecian nose. I made a note about odors and thought about other “travelling essences”. A small pool of water shrinks and eventually dries up. Why? How? (…) My friend Leucippus and I argued for days and days, sometimes until the sun rose and our wives came after us with clubs. (…) Then we got a better idea. Have only a few different styles of atoms, like smooth, rough, round, angular, and have a selected number of different shapes, but have an infinitive supply of each kind. Then put them in empty space. (Boy, you should have seen all the beer we drank to understand empty space! How do you define “nothing at all”?) (…)
LEDERMAN: How did you imagine the indivisibility of atoms?
DEMOCRITUS: It took place in the mind. Imagine a knife of polished bronze. We ask our servant to spend his entire day honing the edge until it can sever a blade of grass held at its distant end. (…) I cut the cheese in two with the knife. Then again and again, until I have a speck of cheese too small to hold. Now I think that if I myself were much smaller, the speck would appear larger to me, and I could hold it, and with my knife honed even sharper, cut it again and again. Now I must again, in my mind, reduce myself (…). I continue cutting the cheese. If I repeat the process enough (…) eventually I will come to a piece of stuff so hard that it can never be cut, even given enough servants to sharpen the knife for a hundred years. I believe the smallest object cannot be cut forever as a matter of necessity. It is unthinkable that we can continue to cut forever, as some so-called learned philosophers say. Now I have the ultimate uncuttable objet, the atomos.
LEDERMAN: And you came up with this idea in fifth-century-B.C. Greece?
DEMOCRITUS: Yes, why? Your ideas today are so much different?
LEDERMAN: Well, actually, they’re pretty much the same. It’s just that we hate the fact that you published first.

2. History of physical experiments and theories.
This is the best and the longest part of the book. And this is the reason I value this book so high. The history of physics, especially the history of particle physics is beautiful. And for centuries a big part of physics was in fact particle physics, but they didn’t know that then. Lederman on the page 64 (the end of chapter 2, after the part about old-time Greek philosophers) gives a list of 35 names written along one line that shows the history of particle physics. In fact the book describes even more people and their discoveries. Among others there are Democritus, Archimedes, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Faraday, Maxwell, Curie, Hertz, Einstein, Rutherford, Heisenberg, Pauli, Fermi and Feynman. The history of physics is so beautiful because there were all those great people who were responsible for all the groundbreaking physical experiments and theories. They were creative. They were patient. They were precise. They were obsessed. Sometimes they were on a brink of madness. But they did incredible job of collecting and analysing experimental data. Here’s an example from the page 151:
     Here was a ghost arisen. The nature of light was an old battleground. Recall that Newton and Galileo held that light consisted of “corpuscles.” The Danish astronomer Christian Huygens argued for a wave theory. This historic battle of Newton’s corpuscles and Huygens’ waves had been settled in favor of waves by Thomas Young’s double-slit experiment (which we will review soon) early in the nineteenth century. In quantum theory, the corpuscle was resurrected, in the form of the photon, and the wave-corpuscle dilemma was revived with a surprising ending.
     But there was even more trouble ahead for classical physics, thanks to Ernest Rutherford and his discovery of the nucleus.
     Ernest Rutherford is one of those characters almost too good to be true, as if he were delivered to the scientific community by Central Casting. A big, gruff New Zealander with a walrus mustache, Rutherford was the first foreigner research student admitted to the famed Cavendish Laboratory, run at the time by J. J. Thomson. Rutherford arrived just in time to witness the discovery of the electron. Good with his hands (unlike his boss, J. J.), he was an experimenter’s experimenter, a worthy rival to Faraday as the best ever. He was known for his profound belief that swearing at an experiment made it work better, a notion backed up by experimental results, if not theory.

3. Humour and funny anecdotes.
The book is written with humour that suits my taste perfectly. It’s mostly a tongue-in-cheek kind of humour, but sometimes it’s sarcastic or self-depreciating. There are also many funny anecdotes, but sometimes I wondered if they were really true:
     (…) Saying this to an experimenter is like throwing down a gauntlet. Searches for quarks began everywhere. (…) One Stanford University experimenter, using tiny, precisely engineered balls made of pure niobium, reported trapping a quark. The experiment languished when it couldn’t be repeated, and disrespectful undergrads wore T-shirts inscribed “You have to have niobium balls if you want to trap quarks.”

4. Understandable explanations of modern physics, especially of quantum theory.
Another high point of the book – it is written with hardly any mathematical equations, so you can get a grip what modern physics is all about without much trouble. Well, there is some trouble because even a very good analogy (instead of a mathematical equation) or a very basic description of a totally new concept has to be chewed by a human brain on its own. For example the fact that no quark can exist alone makes it impossible to “see” it even in the best accelerator detector. Here’s how Lederman describes it:
     Our uneasiness with the fact that quarks were never seen outside of hadrons was only moderately tempered by a physical picture of why quarks are permanently confined. At close distances, quarks exert relatively weak forces on one another. This is the glory domain for theorists, where they can calculate properties of the quark state and the quark’s influence on collision experiment. As the quarks separate, however, the force becomes stronger, and the energy required to add distance between them rises rapidly until, long before we have actually separated the quarks, the energy input results in the creation of a new quark-antiquark pair.
     (…) Bjorken and Feynman had suggested that in very hard collisions of particles, the energized quarks would initially head out and, just before leaving the influence of their quark partners, would mask themselves into a narrow bundle of hadrons – three or four or eight pions, for example, or add some kaons and nucleons. These would be narrowly directed along the path of the parent quark. They were given the name “jets,” and the search was on.

5. First-hand info about particle colliders (particle accelerators).
Leon Lederman is not only a Nobel Prize winner, but he is also a former Director of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (also known as Fermilab) which was then the largest such laboratory in the USA and in the world. In fact Lederman was lucky enough and brilliant enough to work with top-notch equipment throughout his career which started in the 1950s. During his lifetime the progresses in the field of particle accelerators has been HUGE and you can find first-hand info about it in the book.
     Particles make 50,000 orbits in one second around this 4-mile track. In 10 seconds the particles have traveled 2 million miles. Each time they pass a gap – actually a series of specially constructed cavities – a radio-frequency voltage kicks up the energy by about 1 MeV. The magnets that keep the particles focused allow them to deviate from their appointed rounds by less than one eighth of an inch over the entire trip. It’s not perfect, but it’s good enough. Like aiming a rifle at a mosquito sitting on the moon but hitting it in the wrong eye.

What’s bad:
1. The title.
As I mentioned above The God Particle is neither about God nor about the Higgs boson. What’s worse the chapter 8 titled “The God Particle at Last” seemed to me to be artificially expanded. I think that some things described there should be placed in chapter 7 or chapter 9!
2. Too long with too much info.
There are 414 pages in a format that is larger than usual and the font is rather small, so there is LOTS of reading. Reading such a long book of any kind (fantasy book for example) could get tiresome and reading such a long book on physics is really a challenge. The historical parts were not so bad in this regard, but the technical stuff about accelerators or the newest and most advanced physics theories were just a little bit too much. BUT it is not too bad as I have read this book 3 times already, and I will definitely read it again. Moreover finishing the book gives you the feeling of an achievement.
3. A little old.
The book was written in 1993, so it’s not perfectly up-to-date. But it’s VERY close – the top quark has been discovered as it was predicted in the book and another unknown particle – probably the Higgs boson itself – was detected too. And that’s all for basic particles.

Reading The God Particle was like taking part in a beautiful journey through humankind ingenuity. It’s not a perfect book, but very close (for casual readers).

PS. In the last chapter, among other things Lederman writes about seasons (like summer or winter). There is absolutely no connection with particle physics, but Lederman seems to vent his frustration (or should I say his outrage?):
     (…) Of twenty-three graduates randomly selected at Harvard’s 1987 commencement ceremonies, only two could explain why it is hotter in summer than in winter. The answer, by the way, is not “because the sun is closer in summer.” It isn’t closer. The earth’s axis of rotation is tilted, so when the northern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun, the rays are closer to being perpendicular to the surface, and that half of the globe enjoys summer. The other hemisphere gets oblique rays – winter. Six months later the situation is reversed.
     The sad part about ignorance of twenty-one out of twenty-three Harvard grads – Harvard, by God! – who couldn’t answer the question is what they are missing. They have gone through life without understanding a seminal human experience: the seasons.

I would like to vent my frustration (or should I say my outrage?) too, but on a different topic. The years 1999 and 2000 were very hard for me because I realised that most of the people in the world can’t recognise properly when a particular century starts and when it ends. In 1999 I kept hearing that all the things were “the last in the 20th century” and in 2000 I kept hearing that all the things were “the first in the 21st century”. Oh, dear God!!! The last day of the 20th century was 31 December 2000!!! And the first day of the 21st century was 1 January 2001!!! Let me explain it once and for all:
1. A century (ANY century) means 100 FULL years.
2. There was no 0 year. The year 1 BC was followed by 1 AD. There was nothing in between.
3. The first day of the 1st year of the 1st century was 1 January 1.
4. The last day of the 1st year of the 1st century was 31 December 1.
5. The last day of the 99th year of the 1st century was 31 December 99.
6. The last day of the 1st century was 31 December 100.
7. The last day of the 2nd century was 31 December 200.
9. The last day of the 20th century was 31 December 2000.
10. The first day of the 21st century was 1 January 2001.
Is it really THAT hard to understand?

(Monday, 23 June 2014)

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