The great American experimenter Leon Lederman has now chosen to frame his latest popular work around what he christens the God Particle. This subatomic particle, not yet observed despite energetic searching, is usually called the Higgs particle, after the distinguished Edinburgh physicist who developed key parts of the theory that led to its prediction in the Sixties.
Lederman coined the new nickname not because Professor Higgs is God, but because the particle is so central, yet so elusive, to the modern quest for the ultimate structure of matter. If it were not for his publisher's objections, he would rather have called it the Goddamn Particle, 'given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing'.
Scientists are increasingly confident that they will be able to find the long-sought particle, given sufficient billions of dollars. Its discovery would shed light on the profound question of why some fundamental particles have mass. It would also enable scientists to speculate more authoritatively on the beginnings of the universe, when the Higgs particle is believed to have played a crucial role.
Problems with the underlying theory have, however, made it impossible for scientists to predict the particle's properties as comprehensively as they would like. Harvard's Sheldon Glashow, who has done important theoretical work in this field, has become sufficiently concerned to describe the particle as 'a toilet in which we flush away the inconsistencies of our present theories'. Perhaps his publisher might want to tempt him into writing a popular account of 'the sewage particle'. Perhaps not.
Meanwhile, scientists have their work cut out to explain the significance of the particle. William Waldegrave, the cabinet minister responsible for science policy, has apparently been so frustrated by his briefings that he has recently offered a bottle of vintage champagne to the best new explanation he receives. Lederman, a Nobel prize-winner and one of the subject's most effective communicators, is just the person for this job. He once took up the challenge of explaining particle physics to President Reagan in a video lasting no more than 10 minutes (the President promptly gave him his funding).
There is much to be enjoyed in this wide-ranging account of the quest to understand matter. Lederman is an amusing host, and particularly good on the rivalry between his fellow, hard-working, feet-on-the-
ground experimenters, and their head-in-the-clouds theoretician colleagues who 'come in late to work, attend gruelling symposiums on Greek islands . . . and never schedule meetings on Wednesday because it kills two weekends'. It is a wonder the two groups ever meet, but the fact is that their co-operation has given the subject its sharp cutting edge and enabled its extraordinary progress.
Lederman's problem is that he does not seem to have made up his mind what he is writing. We have a combination of a breezily entertaining history of particle physics; a My Greatest Hits compilation of favourite stories; what appear to be extended lecture notes based on an inspirational physics-for-poets college course; and, finally, a clearing house of the best-known problems in subatomic physics. The ingredients are excellent, but they do not always blend well.
It is unlikely that Mr Waldegrave will be inclined to read through the 341-page preamble before he comes to the chapter on the Higgs particle. Although Lederman's discussion is a little technical it is worth waiting for, and he does much to convince us that the search will justify the expense, even in these hard economic times.
If the search is successful, and the theorists can subsume the details of the discovery into their current framework, he may be close to achieving his ambition of seeing the whole of physics reduced to a formula that will fit on the front of a T-shirt.Reuse content