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Particle Portraiture

Eric Swanson

The Particle Odyssey: A Journey to the Heart of Matter. Frank Close, Michael Marten and Christine Sutton. viii + 240 pp. Oxford University Press, 2002. $45.

Coffee-table books usually deal with grand, picturesque topics, such as lost civilizations or remote Pacific islands; it is rare to find one devoted to physics, let alone one that explores an esoteric branch of the field. But The Particle Odyssey does just that, presenting a broad survey of particle physics from its inception in the late 19th century to the present. Two of the authors (Frank Close and Christine Sutton) are British physicists well known for their science popularizations, and the third (Michael Marten), a photojournalist, selected the exquisite, often rare images that grace the text. The book is a updated version of The Particle Explosion, published 15 years ago by the same trio; discussion of several new particles—the top quark, the tau neutrino and the glueball—has been added.

The Collider Detector at Fermilab (CDF) . . .Click to Enlarge Image

The Particle Odyssey has more than 300 illustrations, most in full color, which depict the human as well as technical aspects of the field. As the authors rightly claim, "These pictures show that the subatomic world is real and accessible; they also have their own peculiar beauty." Carl Anderson's compelling cloud- chamber photograph of a positron's condensation trail passing through a lead plate is reproduced here; the first sighting ever of an antiparticle, it earned him the Nobel Prize. Readers will find pictures of a dour Victor Hess about to go aloft in a balloon in search of cosmic rays and an exuberant Richard Feynman lecturing at the European particle physics laboratory CERN.

The book's structure is unconventional: Most of the way through, chapters with an experimental focus alternate with ones that emphasize theory. The chapters about experimental developments deal mostly with a steady stream of advances in particle-accelerator and detection technology: cyclotrons, synchrocyclotrons, Cosmotrons, Tevatrons—increasingly powerful accelerators created in a curious mixture of international cooperation and competition. The photographs show machinery ranging from the quaint handmade accelerators of the 1930s to gigantic modern underground structures several dozen miles in circumference. Although the prose is jargon-laden, the authors explain things clearly enough that on finishing the book a reader should be able to chat knowledgeably at a party about the workings of a synchrophasotron or a Cockcroft-Walton generator.

Especially compelling are the early chapters dealing with the discoveries of Ernest Rutherford and his contemporaries. In a remarkable achievement of ingenuity and determination, Rutherford was able to construct what is essentially our modern picture of atoms and atomic nuclei. Rutherford's apparatuses could be built with not much more than can be found in a typical kitchen junk drawer. Nevertheless, he (and the reader) would have no trouble understanding the workings of a modern particle physics experiment, since progress in experimental technique has been largely a matter of improved engineering and increased scale.

The same cannot be said for the theoretical framework of particle physics, which has been revolutionized since the days of the raisin-pudding model of the atom. But in the chapters on theory, which describe more than two dozen particles ranging from the humble electron to the esoteric top quark and the putative Higgs boson, the authors do an admirable job of explaining the evolving theoretical framework into which those particles fit, starting with the simple early notions of atomic structure and ending with the Standard Model. Readers get a view of the creation of what can rightfully be called the pinnacle of thousands of years of reductionist inquiry.

Two chapters near the end of the book offer a glimpse of the hot topics that drive modern particle physics, such as the application of particle physics to early universe cosmology, the search for a new type of matter called quark-gluon plasma, the nature of dark matter (matter whose existence is suspected, but which is as yet undetected), the characteristics of neutrinos and the origin of mass. A few pages are devoted to a brief survey of the concept of symmetry, superstring theory and the Theory of Everything.

The Particle Odyssey ends with a chapter on practical spin-offs. The canonical example is the ubiquitous electron—the authors point out that every television set is a small particle accelerator coupled to a primitive particle-detection system. Modern examples include recent developments that may have applications in medical imaging and radiotherapy, such as the Imaging Silicon Pixel Array tube and the proton linac.

On the whole, the authors set a lively pace and explain some difficult concepts well. Unfortunately, the prose is a little choppy at times—more than once the reader is left to struggle over awkwardly constructed sentences. A more serious concern is that paired consecutive chapters (experiment followed by theory) tend to repeat the same general information. Reading straight through, I found the repetition annoying; for example, an analogy is drawn between quantum chromodynamics and quantum electrodynamics three times. But one should recall that The Particle Odyssey is primarily a coffee-table book, designed to be read at random. The authors do their best to make the format work by supplying frequent references to previous discussion and an extensive index, but their task is not an easy one, since the subject is technical and the terminology can be overwhelming.

I was somewhat surprised to find my interest waning in the later chapters. The photographs taken before about 1950 offer compelling glimpses into the lives and research of industrious men and women as they tease fundamental truths about the universe from bits of gold foil, blocks of wax and primitive circuitry, often while struggling against economic or personal difficulties, sometimes in a wartime context. These pictures reveal that researchers in this field are not abstract daydreamers, but determined individuals obtaining visceral results through sweat and ingenuity.

By contrast, in modern particle physics, which is largely dominated by gigantic machinery requiring the collaborative effort of thousands of scientists and engineers, the personal side of research tends to be hidden. Thus the newer photographs tend to look the same after a while—they show metal behemoths covered with a patina of wires and tubes, beam pipes curving off into the distance or streams of particle paths electronically reproduced on a computer screen. Only occasionally do we get a brief glimpse of the human element—a reference to the driven personality of Carlo Rubbia, who did pioneering work on proton-antiproton collisions, or a mention of the catastrophic loss in 2001 of thousands of expensive phototubes in a chain-reaction implosion in Japan's Super-Kamiokande detector.

The Particle Odyssey succeeds in providing readers with an overview of the historical development of particle physics and an appreciation of the exciting ideas that drive current research. No book better captures the visual and intellectual sweep of a century of particle physics.—Eric S. Swanson, Physics and Astronomy, University of Pittsburgh

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