“How to Find a Higgs Boson, and Other Big Mysteries in the World of the Very Small” by Ivo Van Vulpen, Yale University Press, 2020, 272 pages, $28
The smaller the particle, the more difficult it is to detect, and the larger the equipment to detect it seems to be required — especially with the most elusive elementary particle of subatomic physics, the Higgs boson.
“How to Find a Higgs Boson, and Other Big Mysteries in the World of the Very Small” by Ivo Van Vulpen tells the story of the search for the Higgs boson. The book places the Higgs in context, telling readers where it fits in the world of subatomic particles and why it’s important.
Van Vulpen was part of the team that discovered the Higgs boson in 2012. Before talking about the discovery, he introduces readers to particle physics. He opens the book with a discussion of how physics works and explains why it works that way. In it, he also shows physics’ importance to everyday life. We all benefit from how we harness physics rules. Electricity, telecommunications and transportation are all fruits of physics.
He then takes readers on a voyage into the world of small particle physics. Starting with the periodic table, Van Vulpen conducts his audience through ever-smaller divisions of matter. He presents the story of how the atom was discovered and then shows how scientists learned it’s made up of smaller particles: protons, neutrons and electrons.
He then reveals how yet smaller particles were discovered that made up protons, neutrons and electrons, until he gets to today’s standard model of physics. This framework offers today’s understanding of forces and particles.
There’s math, but Van Vulpen uses it as seasoning, sprinkled in as needed. His explanations favor everyday analogies non-scientists can easily understand. He also conveys the excitement of the scientific hunt and the sense of wonder he feels in his explorations.
“How to Find a Higgs Boson” is a charming book on many levels. Van Vulpen tells an interesting story, presenting complicated facts with language accessible to anyone with a basic high school education. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand this book, and readers come away entertained as well as informed.