Collision Course

An insider offers a ‘clear and engaging’ account of the Large Hadron Collider.

Large Hadron Collider: The Extraordinary Story of the Higgs Boson and Other Stuff That Will Blow Your Mind. Don Lincoln. 240 pages. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Simulated proton-proton collision at the Large Hadron Collider. (CERN.)
Simulated proton-proton collision at the Large Hadron Collider. (CERN.)

Don Lincoln will have to keep writing books.

In 2008 he published The Quantum Frontier: The Large Hadron Collider, detailing the science behind the massive underground accelerator on the Swiss-French border at CERN, the European physics laboratory. That book came out just as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was to generate its first proton beams.

Naturally, a book written about an experiment before it began was doomed to obsolescence, but Lincoln is out with an update, The Large Hadron Collider: The Extraordinary Story of the Higgs Boson and Other Stuff That Will Blow Your Mind. This volume covers what’s happened since the LHC startup, including the first beams in September 2008, a disastrous failure that heavily damaged the instrument a few days later, and the Nobel Prize-winning discovery of the Higgs, one of the last pieces predicted in the Standard Model of particle physics.

Lincoln, a senior scientist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and an adjunct physics professor at the University of Notre Dame, witnessed it all as a member of the LHC research team. The Large Hadron Collider gives an inside look at how it happened and the questions the LHC will address next.

Lincoln has some necessary overlap between this and The Quantum Frontier as he gently walks the reader through fundamental particle physics. Along the way he conveys some of the wonder that drives physicists—the deep search for the why behind how our universe works. The descriptions, often lighthearted, are liberally sprinkled with understandable analogies, such as one comparing subatomic particles to grains of sand that would shift in the wind without the four fundamental forces that bind them like cement.

There also are numerous illustrations explaining things like magnetic fields and particle acceleration.

Moving on to accelerator and detector science, Lincoln conveys the improbability of the whole exercise: The precision needed to collide protons in the LHC is the “equivalent of taking two sewing needles, separating them by 6 miles (10 kilometers), shooting them at one another, and having them collide at the halfway point.” That the LHC works at all is an engineering miracle.

‘People cared.’ I’m not so sure they did, at least not in great numbers.

Some of the most entertaining sections describe the LHC’s assembly. Some detectors pieces weigh thousands of tons and had to be carefully trucked to the site with difficult logistics and occasional mishaps. Other parts were small and delicate, placed in custom-made cases that were rolled onto airliners on baby-carriage wheels and strapped into first-class seats.

The book’s newest material starts about halfway in. Lincoln describes the triumph at CERN when the accelerator’s massive superconducting magnets generated the first proton beams and the stunning failure a few days later when an electrical fault damaged dozens of superconducting magnets. The LHC was repaired and hit its peak collision energy of 7 trillion electron volts (TeV) in early 2010. It shut down for maintenance in early 2013.

Lincoln describes the Higgs boson, including useful analogies for both the particle and its associated Higgs field. He walks the reader through the complicated physics of particle decay and predictions for the Higgs mass. Giving himself and his Fermilab colleagues a (deserved) pat on the back, Lincoln tells how early work on the facility’s Tevatron accelerator narrowed the possible energy for the Higgs.

Two teams independently analyzed data from the LHC, then compared results. In July 2012 researchers announced that a new particle “consistent with a Higgs boson” had been discovered. The report made news around the world, some of it fairly accurate, Lincoln notes. Pursuit of the Higgs “got above-the-fold coverage in international newspapers and on the main websites of online news sites,” he writes. “People cared.”

I’m not so sure they did, at least not in great numbers. No matter how amazing or fascinating, particle physics remains a dense and esoteric subject with little meaning to the every day lives of ordinary people. I suspect most have a vague knowledge, at best, of the Higgs and the LHC. Nonetheless, it was well deserved when Peter Higgs, the British physicist for whom the particle is named, and Belgian colleague Francois Englert won the 2013 Nobel in physics.

In the last chapters, Lincoln turns to questions the LHC is likely to address—the further mysteries of the Higgs, the four fundamental forces, added dimensions and more. He delves into supersymmetry, antimatter and other subjects, but they’re “only the tiniest fraction of questions that have been and will continue to be explored by the various experiments arrayed around the LHC.”

The Large Hadron Collider is timed perfectly, coming out just as the LHC ends a two-year shutdown for maintenance. The giant machine is already in cool-down phase as it prepares for a three-year run starting early next year. When the protons begin to fly, they will collide at energies up to double the previous level, as much as 14 TeV.

When the data come in, Lincoln will have to issue another update. If his record holds, it should be as clear and engaging as this one.

Thomas R. O'Donnell is a senior science editor at the Krell Institute. He has written extensively about research at U.S. Department of Energy National Laboratories.

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