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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
A Zeptospace Odyssey: A Journey Into the Physics of the LHC - Gian Francesco Giudice Living in Geneva and having quite a few friends who work at CERN, I'd somehow never got around to reading a book about the LHC. I mean, they sell them at tourist shops here. I must know all that stuff, right? No: wrong, wrong, wrong! Luckily, a colleague at work had a copy of A Zeptospace Odyssey and said he was sure I'd enjoy it. He dropped it off on my desk when I was away, and it seemed plain rude to hand it back unread; it turned out to be both amusing and informative.

The book, written by a guy who's apparently worked at CERN for a large part of his career, is divided into three sections. The first gives you a brisk tour of the physics which forms the basis for the LHC. The second tells you about the LHC itself. The third (the book came out in 2010) describes the cool things they hoped to do once they'd got it properly running.

Of the three sections, I liked the second one best; the author appears to know a great deal about how the LHC was constructed, and gives you many picturesque details. I had heard that it was the most complicated machine ever built, but I hadn't appreciated quite what that meant. The most frightening part is the superconducting magnets. They weigh thirty tons each, this being the largest load that could feasibly be transported along European roads, and are engineered to incredibly tight tolerances. They operate just under the temperature where they would cease to be superconductive, and extreme care has to be taken to make sure that they don't "quench". I had not understood how powerful the particle beam is; despite the fact that it consists of only a few tens of billions of protons, almost nothing at all, its near-lightspeed velocity means it's got the energy of a 400-ton train. There are many nice pictures of the magnets, detectors and other complex machinery.

Despite being so new, the third section has a curiously dated feel. He's fairly confident that they will find the Higgs particle (there is a good explanation of what it is and why it's important), and then there are three or four chapters of euphoric speculation about what other goodies might turn up; he gives you plausible reasons to expect that the new energies the LHC can reach mean a decisive frontier has been crossed. As everyone knows, they did indeed find the Higgs, but apart from that, nothing. No supersymmetric particles, no dark matter, in short no evidence of any physics that fails to fit the Standard Model. But this is still a very nice account of how Big Science gets done. And who knows what might happen next?

Something I couldn't help wondering about afterwards: in The Cosmic Landscape (2006, cited here), Susskind says it's now clear that supersymmetry can't be realized in our universe. He presents arguments from string theory, which I couldn't follow, to prove his point. But four years later, the people at CERN are still looking for supersymmetric particles.

Well, I guess experimentalists shouldn't believe everything theoreticians tell them but check for themselves. It was still a little odd that he never mentioned that supersymmetry was officially dead.