Elusive: How Peter Higgs Solved the Mystery of Mass by Frank Close - review by John Gribbin

John Gribbin

Mr Willis’s Second-Best Pupil

Elusive: How Peter Higgs Solved the Mystery of Mass

By

Allen Lane 304pp £25 order from our bookshop
 

Frank Close is a particle physicist who during a distinguished career developed a sideline in writing accessible popular books about the subatomic world long before anyone outside the halls of academe had heard of Carlo Rovelli. After retiring from his day job, he wrote fascinating biographical studies of the ‘atom spies’ who provided the Soviet Union with the information that kick-started its nuclear weapons programme during and after the Second World War. Now he has combined the strands of his career in a semi-biographical study of Nobel laureate Peter Higgs and the particle named after him – the particle which is responsible for giving other particles mass and which determines the rate at which the sun burns its atomic fuel and thereby maintains conditions suitable for life on earth.

The title of the book applies to both the man and the particle that bears his name. Higgs is famously self-effacing and avoids the limelight, to the extent that on the day of the announcement of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics, which he was expected to win, he pretended he was on holiday in the Scottish Highlands, sending reporters off on a wild-goose chase while he sipped ale in a quiet seafood bar in Edinburgh. The particle proved even more elusive. Its existence was proposed in the mid-1960s but it was not identified or discovered for another forty years, and then only after the construction of the biggest ‘atom smasher’ in the world, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, in a tunnel roughly the length of London’s Circle Line straddling the Swiss–French border. Close tells the intertwined stories of Higgs’s life and the discovery of the Higgs boson with the aid of a deep understanding of the physics involved and the benefit of many meetings with Higgs himself. There have been other books on the same theme, but this is far and away the best.

Where Close excels is in explaining the fundamental principles of particle physics in language anyone likely to pick up the book will understand. His explanations of technical terms such as ‘renormalisation’, ‘gauge theory’ and ‘symmetry breaking’ are superb, and I fully intend to steal some of his analogies for

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