The Quantum Frontier: The Large Hadron Collider
By Don Lincoln
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009;
192 pp.; US $25.00;
One occupational hazard of science writing is the obsessive accumulation of science books written by scientists. My weakness is physics, and in my quest for articulate explanations of the physical universe, I’ve made it two-thirds of the way into the second chapters of works by Lisa Randall, Brian Greene, and Stephen Hawking, to name just the brightest lights in a vast constellation of books. Sometimes it’s just me—I lack an intuitive understanding of subatomic particles, astronomy, and pretty much everything in between.
In the case of Don Lincoln’s The Quantum Frontier , however, the fault, dear reader, lies neither in our stars nor myself. For one thing, this is really two books. The first tries to provide a quick pop-culture primer in particle physics. The other tours the engineering marvels of the Large Hadron Collider.
My job as a science writer subjects me to fairly regular lectures on the importance of the Higgs boson, so I understood—just barely—enough of the first book (the primer) to be enthralled by the second (the chapters detailing the LHC’s engineering). The primer is not enough, in other words, for an ordinary reader not already versed in particle physics. Worse, you can’t make sense of the second book without the first.
The moment I read a bizarre and memorable metaphor for supersymmetry—a bug in a tiny sleeping bag—I knew that Lincoln, an experimental physicist at Fermilab, was undoubtedly a great teacher. But according to the jacket blurb, Lincoln’s book should be required reading for anyone even ”vaguely interested” in physics, and that’s where I draw the line.
For example, if you already understand the logic of supersymmetry and the way a quark separates into its constituent parts, it won’t bother you that the author variously describes the process as that of water separated into droplets, the pellets of a shotgun blast, and eventually, a fireball. At this point, the person only vaguely interested in physics will likely head for the greener pastures of ”America’s Next Top Model.”
Brow-crinkling metaphors are generously interleaved with ham-fisted attempts at accessibility. ”If you have a bunch of protons, how do you cause them to go fast?” Lincoln asks the reader. ”A slingshot? Draft a pitcher from Major League Baseball? Attach them to three-year-olds and feed them sugared breakfast cereal?” After suffering through the quark waterfall/shotgun blast/fireball bouillabaisse, that bit of condescension is a bitter dessert. Then insult is added to injury in the form of an unhelpful diagram.
Indeed, starting with chapter 2, cortex-twisting descriptions of particles like the Z and Higgs bosons are accompanied by diagrams so useless you wonder who thought they would help the reader visualize the monstrously complex processes on the page. Instead, the obtuse illustrations explain only the most relentlessly obvious concepts. For example, there’s a great diagram of a square being rotated 45 degrees so that it always looks exactly the same. Similar treatment is given a circle 10 pages later. ”Do nearly anything to them,” the caption further explains, ”and you can’t tell that something happened.” But any 6-year-old knows that about circles without the aid of a diagram. Similarly, in the baseball parfait, the effect of gravity on a baseball is illustrated by three downward-pointing arrows.
To be fair, some of the metaphors succeed. Coffee and honey are a great way to think about the viscosity of quarks. I deeply enjoyed Lincoln’s very accessible discussions of antimatter and Cerenkov radiation. And the in-depth explanations of what the different calorimeters and solenoids do inside the LHC’s vast underground accelerator are fascinating and exhaustive.
There is, then, an ideal readership for this book—physics majors just being introduced to particle physics. For the lay reader, I would say lay off—except for the cover, which is a centerfold-quality shot of the silicon tracking detector inside the LHC in all its toroidal glory. Reading the book on the train, I noticed people staring so often that I removed the jacket for fear of being perceived as one of those people who holds Sartre at eye level to alert passersby to her vast inner depths.
So let this book join those of Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking, and Lisa Randall in the coffee-table pantheon of books that are opaque but look really impressive on your bookshelf. It’s no worse than any of these.