Smashing Physics

Jon Butterworth

Why I looked at this book

This has been shortlisted for the 2015 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books

First impressions

In the introduction there is a list of things the book is not, but I'm not entirely sure what it is yet. It seems to consist of details of Butterworth's life as a researcher interleaved with 'glossary' sections explaining some of the physics. Such an autobiographical approach can work well in introducing the reader to a subject, and this book deals with the LHC and search for the Higgs boson in a readable way. I'm not entirely sure, however, how well it would suit a novice reader wanting to find out about the topic.

Note: The first chapter can be read here (but you might also want to read the introduction in the Amazon sample)

Main review

Butterworth describes the excitement when the LHC started up, and how this turned to dismay when there was an explosion meaning that the long wait would be even longer. But it wasn't all bad - the unexpected wait meant that there was time for him to check through and improve the computer code at the core of his work. Indeed the book makes clear the importance of checking as much as possible so as to be confident in the results - have someone else go through your work, and always keep an eye on results from elsewhere to see how they relate to what you are doing.

Following the LHC restart we hear of how the energy was gradually increased over time, and of how hints of the existence of the Higgs boson began to appear. Researchers were careful, however, not to announce results prematurely - the episode of the faster than light neutrinos demonstrated the problems that could cause. Eventually there was sufficient confidence in its existence and Butterworth describes the flurry of activity surrounding its announcement.

The book also describes some of the politics of supporting high energy physics. It's an expensive undertaking, and plenty of people have other ideas of what the money could be spent on. Butterworth argues that it's worth the money - that 'Big Science' like this is needed to sustain people's interest in the nature of the world they live in.

If you want to find out more about what the life of a researcher at the LHC is like then this is the book for you. It's an interesting read, although I'm not entirely sure that it's suited to the general reader wanting to find out more about the LHC. For instance it has no pictures of the LHC (the only illustrations are a few Feynman diagrams). It's probably more suited to those already studying physics, to see what their careers might be like. For this reason I wouldn't choose it as the best of the 2015 Winton prize contenders.
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