Review: 'The Particle At The End Of The Universe'

Astrophysicist Adam Frank reviews the new book, The Particle At The End Of The Universe by Sean Carroll.

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If you're the kind of person who loves to ponder life's fundamental question but wouldn't know Higgs boson if it bought you flowers, reviewer Adam Frank says he has the book for you. It's "The Particle at the End of the Universe" by physicist and science blogger Sean Carroll. Adam Frank says it's filled with insight, great storytelling and a whole lot of Higgs.

ADAM FRANK, BYLINE: Sean Carroll's task is not an easy one. The Higgs boson is essentially the fundamental particle which gives all other fundamental particles the very fundamental property we call mass. In a sense, it's the Higgs that makes mass. Unfortunately, that bold statement actually hides most of the real story. The Higgs is really the capstone of an ornate pyramid of abstract ideas physicists have been building for decades as they struggle to answer a simple question: what is matter? Carroll gives us a grand story that begins with the Greeks 2,500 years ago and ends with a 12,500-ton atom smasher in Geneva last summer when the Higgs was discovered.

The book succeeds by combining lucid descriptions of the triumphant physics behind the Higgs with a very human story of the search itself. As Carroll puts it, the search for the Higgs is not just a story of subatomic particles and esoteric ideas. It's also a tale of money, politics and jealousy. This book is more than a tour of big ideas and big events in physics. With wit and honesty, Carroll conveys why science's fundamental questions matter so much to human culture. When you're 6 years old, everyone asks these kinds questions, Carroll writes. Why is the sky blue? Why do things fall down? But, he continues, that innate curiosity is beaten out of us by years of schooling and the pressures of real life.

In the still corners of our lives, however, these questions never really disappear. And as Carroll shows so clearly, we strive to understand our fundamental questions for far more fundamental reasons. We are, he says, a part of the universe that has developed a remarkable ability: to hold an image of the world in our minds. That capacity, Carroll shows us in "The Particle at the End of the Universe," carries its own responsibility and its own joy for scientists and non-scientists alike.

CORNISH: Astrophysicist Adam Frank teaches at the University of Rochester and writes for NPR's Cosmos and Culture blog. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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