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Alice’s Analysis: The Particle at the End of the Universe by Sean Carroll

Over the coming months, Nature’s Head of Press, Alice Henchley, will be reading and reviewing the books shortlisted for the 2013 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books, at a rate of one every two weeks.  The winner will be announced at a public event at the Royal Society on the 25th November 2013 during which shortlisted authors will discuss their books with host Dara O Briain.  Prior to the announcement,  we’re running a competition on Of Schemes and Memes to win a set of the shortlisted books – all you have to do is predict the winning book and enter our prize draw.

The Particle at the End of the Universe by Sean Carroll

Particle at the End of the Universe-jacketCarroll is nothing if not ambitious as he commences on his quest to take us to the forefront of physics research.  Fermions, bosons, fields and symmetries have all been explained by chapter two and atoms and particles dispatched by chapter three. This whistle-stop tour of the basics leaves you approaching the next chapter with a certain nervous trepidation, but it’s here that Carroll really hits his stride.  The rest of the book captures the excitement and energy of the internationally renowned, but often misunderstood, events at CERN and your early lessons come in useful as the concepts become more complex.

The Particle at the End of the Universe doesn’t just explain what the Higgs boson is, it explains the history of its conception and the much broader world of particle physics.   A section on probabilities and the significance of experimental results provides an excellent guide to understanding the scientific method more generally and, towards the end of the book, Carroll hints at some of the next frontiers for cosmological research.

Throughout the book analogies are used to great effect, with the aim of particle accelerators compared to the smashing together of two Timex watches to make a Rolex and the interaction of a top quark with the Higgs field to Angelina Jolie and a roomful of partygoers.  Anecdotes are similarly harnessed.  We read of Carroll’s childhood fascination with dinosaurs and how searching for the Higgs can be likened to the search for fossils.  Particle physicists come to life as they make bets, squash rumours of an approaching apocalypse and send sophisticated “ping-pong” balls whizzing round the giant racetrack that is the LHC.  Carroll even manages to reference the hip hop duo Insane Clown Posse, agreeing that magnets really are “pretty astounding”.

By the time you hit the appendices, a great deal of ground has been covered and you feel much better informed than when you started out.  Much like the search for the Higgs itself, reading this book isn’t necessarily an easy journey, but you are certain to enjoy the ride.

You can read Jonathan Butterworth’s Nature Books and Arts review of The Particle at the End of the Universe here.  

aliceAlice Henchley has been Head of Press at Nature since the start of 2013.  Prior to that she worked at the Royal Society and the Zoological Society of London, communicating everything from population policy to conservation of the world’s most extraordinary animals.


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