BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Absolutely smashing ...

This was a happy discovery at the dollar store … and just a few weeks ago (it did not languish in the “wall of to-be-read books” like so many do). I know I come off as a cheap bastard, but it makes me so happy to get a nice hardcover book for next to nothing … and especially if it's a book that I actually like (of course, if one of my $1 finds is “meh”, I'm also not kicking myself for having spent $25 for it). Obviously a book about the Large Hadron Collider is likely to be pretty current, and the copy I have is from the 2010 first edition (poking around on Amazon, I've found that there is a revised reprint edition from 2012 which has been updated with the particulars of the Higgs Boson, discovered 7/4/12).

Of course, this means that Amir D. Aczel's Present at the Creation: the Story of CERN and the Large Hadron Collider (since re-subtitled with “Discovering the Higgs Boson”) is a bit of a tease since it takes the story up to the point when the LHC is working, but results hadn't come through as yet. Frankly, this was not a smooth process, what was to be the official start of the device was on 09/10/2008, with the counter-rotating proton beams circulating for the first time, but soon after a major problem with the superconducting magnets caused a catastrophic breakdown, which took another 14 months to repair. In November of 2009 they fired it up again, and had the first proton collisions, but it wasn't until 03/30/2010 that it went up to half power (two 3.5 TeV proton beams colliding for a 7 TeV power level) and started to pick apart what was being created.

Aczel has a dozen science books out there, and he obviously knows his stuff. One of the most notable aspects to Present at the Creation is how deftly he handles “setting the stage” for talking about the LHC, as, obviously, there is a LOT of science which needs to get covered to bring the reader up to the point where the project generally makes sense. Needless to say, one could spend thousands of pages to get there, but he manages to present (what to me seemed) a decent overview while discussing the development of the LHC … and he covers a lot: dark matter, anti-matter, superposition, quark theory, black holes, Feynman diagrams, symmetry, fields, etc., etc., etc.

The numbers associated with the LHC are stunning … it is the largest machine ever constructed, and its detectors (there are a number of separate programs using the same accelerator ring, with the two largest being the CMS, or Compact Muon Solenoid, and the ATLAS) are huge, the size of 5-7 story buildings buried deep under the French/Swiss countryside at CERN. When the LHC is pushed to its maximum of 7 TeV per beam, it will be moving those protons at an amazing 99.9999991 percent of the speed of light. To put that in perspective, if the beam was shot at Alpha Centauri, 4.2 lightyears away from us, it would arrive only 0.3 seconds later than a photon from our Sun (moving, of course, at the speed of light). Given that protons are “massive”, that 99.9999991 figure is pretty good … and not likely to be bested any time soon, as, according to relativity, at 100% of the speed of light those protons would achieve infinite mass, which gets messy.

One of the concerns that some had voiced about the LHC was that pushing massive particles that close to infinities might create mini black holes. Aczel discusses a lot of the issues around the worries (including the “theory” that the 2008 melt-down on the magnets was the doing of time travelers from the future trying to prevent the LHC from going on-line!), and admits that there are a lot of things that we can't “know” for sure.

Speaking of the magnets … unless there is an alien civilization running bigger superconducting magnets somewhere out there, the coolant system in the LHC is the coldest place in the universe! Most folks are familiar with the idea of “absolute zero” (0 degrees Kelvin, or -459.67° F), but even the empty expanses between galaxies aren't at absolute zero, there's a “temperature” of the universe, a leftover from the big bang 13.7 billion years ago, which runs around 2.73 degrees Kelvin, or -454.7° F … compare that to what the superconducting magnets are cooled to: 1.9 degrees Kelvin, or -456.25° F … to risk alienating you with a terrible pun … How COOL is that???

Aczel also covers a number of the other experiments (other than the big two) being developed at the LHC, and discusses details about how a lot of this stuff works. But the book's hardly “technical” (yeah, I know, easy for me to say, as I love reading about physics), and deals with a lot of the history of scientific theories and discoveries which led up to the LHC and discusses many of the people involved. I was interested (having a daughter who is about to head off to college to become an engineer) to find that the Coordinator for the ATLAS project (and the 3,000 physicists involved in that part of the LHC!) was a woman, Fabiola Gianotti … and the list of top Nobel laureates playing parts at CERN is truly impressive.

The scale of the LHC project is mindboggling, if there are thousands of physicists on board, one can imagine how many engineering specialties are also needed to make these massive machines, and the facilities all along the 17-mile ring of the accelerator, and keep everything running. I must admit to having a twinge of “what could have been” thinking about the US staying the course with the Superconducting Super Collider in north Texas, canceled in 1983 (when it was half done) due to cost over-runs. The SSC would have been bigger (its ring had a 54-mile circumference) and more powerful (at 20 TeV) than the LHC … and would have been here.

As you can tell … I'm very enthusiastic about Present at the Creation, and would highly recommend it to anybody with an interest in physics, or just big amazing projects. As noted, I found this at the dollar store a month or so back, so $1 copies are kicking around out there, but I'd recommend getting the new edition (the 2012 paperback) with the Higgs info in it. It's reasonably priced, and, of course, the on-line big boys have it at a discount, and you can save a bit via the new/used channels (but it seems that the hardcover is the older version, so keep that in mind).

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Tags: book review

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