Ruth Francis, Nature’s Head of Press, is reviewing all the entries shortlisted for the Royal Society’s science book prize. She’ll be reading one per week and posting her thoughts on the Nature news blog every Tuesday between now and the prize ceremony on 17 November.
Forty-eight years ago, an unassuming physicist drove to Princeton to present a controversial theory on the origin of mass. His visit triggered a hunt for a particle that has so far taken decades, cost billions of dollars and simultaneously raised and dashed the hopes of a generation of scientists.
Unlike the other books on this year’s Royal Society book prize shortlist, Massive follows one narrative thread, tied not to one central character but to one theory. Although it opens with Peter Higgs driving to Princeton and ends with him 15 years into retirement in Edinburgh, the particle named for him is the focus of the text.
Ian Sample had unrivalled access to the players in the hunt for the Higgs boson and recounts a gripping tale, littered with intimate insights into the participants: one lab head and senior figure in the Manhattan Project, for instance, was also a competent cowboy who could “lasso any of his three sons when they were young” and would happily roll up his sleeves to mend or even make machinery for a particle accelerator. Another challenges his team to push their accelerator to its limits, saying he’ll get naked in the control room if they succeed; he later backs down and rewards them in bubbly!
The physics is challenging — even for the physicist at the centre of the idea. Peter Higgs himself is quoted on the progression of his theory: “People assumed I’d understood whatever came next. But increasingly I didn’t. When it came to [later developments] I wouldn’t just struggle, I’d sink.” Rather than shying away, however, Sample laces the theory between the human stories, and never pitches the language at anything beyond lay terms.
We read about the highs and lows experienced in the search. Bottles of champagne are seen off as particles that support the theory are glimpsed, and depression moves in when projects are cancelled or delayed. In other instances, hopes are fleeting as further investigation fails to confirm sightings of the elusive particle.
Massive is a page-turner, at times thoroughly absorbing, and I challenge any reader not to be captivated by the ongoing hunt for the Higgs as it unravels.
Previously on Ruth’s Reviews