January 2013

Carroll, Sean. The Particle at the End of the Universe. New York: Dutton, 2012. ISBN 978-0-525-95359-3.
I believe human civilisation is presently in a little-perceived race between sinking into an entropic collapse, extinguishing liberty and individual initiative, and a technological singularity which will simply transcend all of the problems we presently find so daunting and intractable. If things end badly, our descendants may look upon our age as one of extravagance, where vast resources were expended in a quest for pure knowledge without any likelihood of practical applications.

Thus, the last decade has seen the construction of what is arguably the largest and most complicated machine ever built by our species, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), to search for and determine the properties of elementary particles: the most fundamental constituents of the universe we inhabit. This book, accessible to the intelligent layman, recounts the history of the quest for the components from which everything in the universe is made, the ever more complex and expensive machines we've constructed to explore them, and the intricate interplay between theory and experiment which this enterprise has entailed.

At centre stage in this narrative is the Higgs particle, first proposed in 1964 as accounting for the broken symmetry in the electroweak sector (as we'd now say), which gives mass to the W and Z bosons, accounting for the short range of the weak interaction and the mass of the electron. (It is often sloppily said that the Higgs mechanism explains the origin of mass. In fact, as Frank Wilczek explains in The Lightness of Being [March 2009], around 95% of all hadronic mass in the universe is pure E=mc² wiggling of quarks and gluons within particles in the nucleus.) Still, the Higgs is important—if it didn't exist the particles we're made of would all be massless, travel at the speed of light, and never aggregate into stars, planets, physicists, or most importantly, computer programmers. On the other hand, there wouldn't be any politicians.

The LHC accelerates protons (the nuclei of hydrogen, which delightfully come from a little cylinder of hydrogen gas shown on p. 310, which contains enough to supply the LHC with protons for about a billion years) to energies so great that these particles, when they collide, have about the same energy as a flying mosquito. You might wonder why the LHC collides protons with protons rather than with antiprotons as the Tevatron did. While colliding protons with antiprotons allows more of the collision energy to go into creating new particles, the LHC's strategy of very high luminosity (rate of collisions) would require creation of far more antiprotons than its support facilities could produce, hence the choice of proton-proton collisions. While the energy of individual particles accelerated by the LHC is modest from our macroscopic perspective, the total energy of the beam circulating around the accelerator is intimidating: a full beam dump would suffice to melt a ton of copper. Be sure to step aside should this happen.

Has the LHC found the Higgs? Probably—the announcement on July 4th, 2012 by the two detector teams reported evidence for a particle with properties just as expected for the Higgs, so if it turned out to be something else, it would be a big surprise (but then Nature never signed a contract with scientists not to perplex them with misdirection). Unlike many popular accounts, this book looks beneath the hood and explores just how difficult it is to tease evidence for a new particle from the vast spray of debris that issues from particle collisions. It isn't like a little ball with an “h” pops out and goes “bing” in the detector: in fact, a newly produced Higgs particle decays in about 10−22 seconds, even faster than assets entrusted to the management of Goldman Sachs. The debris which emerges from the demise of a Higgs particle isn't all that different from that produced by many other standard model events, so the evidence for the Higgs is essentially a “bump” in the rate of production of certain decay signatures over that expected from the standard model background (sources expected to occur in the absence of the Higgs). These, in turn, require a tremendous amount of theoretical and experimental input, as well as massive computer calculations to evaluate; once you begin to understand this, you'll appreciate that the distinction between theory and experiment in particle physics is more fluid than you might have imagined.

This book is a superb example of popular science writing, and its author has distinguished himself as a master of the genre. He doesn't pull any punches: after reading this book you'll understand, at least at a conceptual level, broken symmetries, scalar fields, particles as excitations of fields, and the essence of quantum mechanics (as given by Aatish Bhatia on Twitter), “Don't look: waves. Look: particles.”


Byrd, Richard E. Alone. Washington: Island Press [1938, 1966] 2003. ISBN 978-1-55963-463-2.
To generations of Americans, Richard Byrd was the quintessential explorer of unknown terrain. First to fly over the North Pole (although this feat has been disputed from shortly after he claimed it to the present day), recipient of the Medal of Honor for this claimed exploit, pioneer in trans-Atlantic flight (although beaten by Lindbergh after a crash on a practice takeoff, he successfully flew from New York to France in June 1927), Antarctic explorer and first to fly over the South Pole, and leader of four more expeditions to the Antarctic, including commanding the operation which established the permanent base at the South Pole which remains there to this day.

In 1934, on his second Antarctic expedition, Byrd set up and manned a meteorological station on the Ross Ice Shelf south of 80°, in which he would pass the Antarctic winter—alone. He originally intended the station to be emplaced much further south and manned by three people (he goes into extensive detail why “cabin fever” makes a two man crew a prescription for disaster), and then, almost on a lark it seems from the narrative, decides, when forced by constraints of weather and delivery of supplies for the winter, to go it alone. In anticipation, he welcomes the isolation from distractions of daily events, the ability to catch up reading, thinking, and listening to music.

His hut was well designed and buried in the ice to render it immune from the high winds and drifting snow of the Antarctic winter. It was well provisioned to survive the winter: food and fuel tunnels cached abundant supplies. Less thought out was the stove and its ventilation. As winter set in, Byrd succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning, made more severe by fumes from the gasoline generator he used to power the radio set which was his only link to those wintering at the Little America base on the coast.

Byrd comes across in this narrative as an extraordinarily complex character. One moment, he's describing how his lamp failed when, at −52° C, its kerosene froze, next he's recounting how easily the smallest mistake: loss of sight of the flags leading back to shelter or a jammed hatch back into the hut can condemn one to despair and death by creeping cold, and then he goes all philosophical:

The dark side of a man's mind seems to be a sort of antenna tuned to catch gloomy thoughts from all directions. I found it so with mine. That was an evil night. It was as if all the world's vindictiveness were concentrated upon me as upon a personal enemy. I sank to depths of disillusionment which I had not believed possible. It would be tedious to discuss them. Misery, after all, is the tritest of emotions.

Here we have a U.S. Navy Rear Admiral, Medal of Honor winner, as gonzo journalist in the Antarctic winter—extraordinary. Have any other great explorers written so directly from the deepest recesses of their souls?

Byrd's complexity deepens further as he confesses to fabricating reports of his well-being in radio reports to Little America, intended, he says, to prevent them from launching a rescue mission which he feared would end in failure and the deaths of those who undertook it. And yet Byrd's increasingly bizarre communications eventually caused such a mission to be launched, and once it was, his diary pinned his entire hope upon its success.

If you've ever imagined yourself first somewhere, totally alone and living off the supplies you've brought with you: in orbit, on the Moon, on Mars, or beyond, here is a narrative of what it's really like to do that, told with brutal honesty by somebody who did. Admiral Byrd's recounting of his experience is humbling to any who aspire to the noble cause of exploration.


White, James. All Judgment Fled. New York: Ballantine, 1969. ISBN 978-0-345-02016-1. LCCN 70086388.
James White was a science fiction author, fan, and fanzine editor in Northern Ireland. Although he published 19 novels and numerous short stories, he never quit his day job to become a professional writer: apart from a few superstar authors, science fiction just didn't pay that much in the 1950s and '60s. White was originally attracted to science fiction by the work of “Doc” Smith and Robert Heinlein, and his fiction continues very much in the Golden Age tradition of hard science fiction they helped establish.

In the 1960s, one of the criticisms of science fiction by “new wave” authors was that it had become too obsessed with hardware and conflict, and did not explore the psyche of its characters or the cultures they inhabited. In this book, the author tells a story in the mainstream of the hard science fiction genre, but puts the psychology of the characters on centre stage. Starting with a little smudge of light on an astronomer's time exposure, follow-up observations determine the object was maneuvering and hence could not be an asteroid. It settles into an orbit 12 million miles outside that of Mars. Spectral analysis reveals it to be highly reflective, probably metal. A Jupiter probe is diverted to fly by the object, and returns grainy images of a torpedo-shaped structure about half a mile in length. Around the world, it is immediately dubbed the Ship.

After entering solar orbit, the Ship does nothing: it neither maneuvers nor emits signals detectable by sensors of any kind. It remains a complete enigma, but one of epochal importance to a humanity just taking its first steps into its own solar system: a civilisation capable of interstellar travel was obviously so far beyond the technological capability of mankind that contact with it could change everything in human history, and were that contact to end badly, ring down the curtain on its existence.

Two ships, built to establish a base and observatory on the Martian moon Deimos, are re-purposed to examine the Ship at close range and, should the opportunity present itself, make contact with its inhabitants. The crew of six, divided between the two ships, are a mix of square-jawed military astronaut types and woolier scientists, including a lone psychologist who finds himself having to master the complexity of dynamics among the crew, their relations with distant Prometheus Control on Earth which seems increasingly disconnected in its estimation of the situation they are experiencing first hand and delusional in their orders for dealing with it, and the ultimate challenge of comprehending the psychology of spacefaring extraterrestrials in order to communicate with them.

Upon arrival at the Ship, the mystery only deepens. Not only is there no reaction to their close range approach to the Ship, when an exploration party boards it, they find technology which looks comparable to that of humans, no evidence of an intelligent life form directing the ship, but multitudes of aliens as seemingly mindless as sharks bent on killing them. Puzzling out this enigma requires the crew to explore the Ship, deal with Prometheus Control as an adversary, manage the public relations impact of their actions on a global audience on Earth who are watching their every move, and deal with the hazards of a totally alien technology.

This is a throughly satisfying story of first contact (although as the pages count down toward the end, you'll find yourself wondering if, and when, that will actually happen). It is not great science fiction up to the standard of Doc Smith or Heinlein, but it is very good. The “Personnel Launcher” is one of the more remarkable concepts of transferring crew between ships en-route I've encountered. Readers at this remove may find the author's taking psychology and psychotherapy so seriously rather quaint. But recall that through much of the 1960s, even the theories of the charlatan Freud were widely accepted by people who should have known better, and the racket of psychoanalysis was prospering. Today we'd just give 'em a pill. Are we wiser, or were they?

This work is out of print, but used copies are generally available. The book was reprinted in 1979 by Del Rey and again in 1996 by Old Earth Books. If you're looking for a copy to read (as opposed to a collectible), it's best to search by author and title and choose the best deal based on price and condition. The novel was originally serialised in If Magazine in 1967.

Update: New reprint copies of the original UK hardcover edition remain available directly from Old Earth Books. (2013-01-25 20:16 UTC)


Manchester, William and Paul Reid. The Last Lion. Vol. 3. New York: Little, Brown, 2012. ISBN 978-0-316-54770-3.
William Manchester's monumental three volume biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion, began with the 1984 publication of the first volume, Visions of Glory, 1874–1932 and continued with second in 1989, Alone, 1932–1940. I devoured these books when they came out, and eagerly awaited the concluding volume which would cover Churchill's World War II years and subsequent career and life. This was to be a wait of more than two decades. By 1988, William Manchester had concluded his research for the present volume, subtitled Defender of the Realm, 1940–1965 and began to write a draft of the work. Failing health caused him to set the project aside after about a hundred pages covering events up to the start of the Battle of Britain. In 2003, Manchester, no longer able to write, invited Paul Reid to audition to complete the work by writing a chapter on the London Blitz. The result being satisfactory to Manchester, his agent, and the publisher, Reid began work in earnest on the final volume, with the intent that Manchester would edit the manuscript as it was produced. Alas, Manchester died in 2004, and Reid was forced to interpret Manchester's research notes, intended for his own use and not to guide another author, without the assistance of the person who compiled them. This required much additional research and collecting original source documents which Manchester had examined. The result of this is that this book took almost another decade of work by Reid before its publication. It has been a protracted wait, especially for those who admired the first two volumes, but ultimately worth it. This is a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to what will likely remain the definitive biography of Churchill for the foreseeable future.

When Winston Churchill became prime minister in the dark days of May 1940, he was already sixty-five years old: retirement age for most of his generation, and faced a Nazi Germany which was consolidating its hold on Western Europe with only Britain to oppose its hegemony. Had Churchill retired from public life in 1940, he would still be remembered as one of the most consequential British public figures of the twentieth century; what he did in the years to come elevated him to the stature of one of the preeminent statesmen of modern times. These events are chronicled in this book, dominated by World War II, which occupies three quarters of the text. In fact, although the focus is on Churchill, the book serves also as a reasonably comprehensive history of the war in the theatres in which British forces were engaged, and of the complex relations among the Allies.

It is often forgotten at this remove that at the time Churchill came to power he was viewed by many, including those of his own party and military commanders, as a dangerous and erratic figure given to enthusiasm for harebrained schemes and with a propensity for disaster (for example, his resignation in disgrace after the Gallipoli catastrophe in World War I). Although admired for his steadfastness and ability to rally the nation to the daunting tasks before it, Churchill's erratic nature continued to exasperate his subordinates, as is extensively documented here from their own contemporary diaries.

Churchill's complex relationships with the other leaders of the Grand Alliance: Roosevelt and Stalin, are explored in depth. Although Churchill had great admiration for Roosevelt and desperately needed the assistance the U.S. could provide to prosecute the war, Roosevelt comes across as a lightweight, ill-informed and not particularly engaged in military affairs and blind to the geopolitical consequences of the Red Army's occupying eastern and central Europe at war's end. (This was not just Churchill's view, but widely shared among senior British political and military circles.) While despising Bolshevism, Churchill developed a grudging respect for Stalin, considering his grasp of strategy to be excellent and, while infuriating to deal with, reliable in keeping his commitments to the other allies.

As the war drew to a close, Churchill was one of the first to warn of the great tragedy about to befall those countries behind what he dubbed the “iron curtain” and the peril Soviet power posed to the West. By July 1950, the Soviets fielded 175 divisions, of which 25 were armoured, against a Western force of 12 divisions (2 armoured). Given the correlation of forces, only Soviet postwar exhaustion and unwillingness to roll the dice given the threat of U.S. nuclear retaliation kept the Red Army from marching west to the Atlantic.

After the war, in opposition once again as the disastrous Attlee Labour government set Britain on an irreversible trajectory of decline, he thundered against the dying of the light and retreat from Empire not, as in the 1930s, a back-bencher, but rather leader of the opposition. In 1951 he led the Tories to victory and became prime minister once again, for the first time with the mandate of winning a general election as party leader. He remained prime minister until 1955 when he resigned in favour of Anthony Eden. His second tenure as P.M. was frustrating, with little he could to do to reverse Britain's economic decline and shrinkage on the world stage. In 1953 he suffered a serious stroke, which was covered up from all but his inner circle. While he largely recovered, approaching his eightieth birthday, he acknowledged the inevitable and gave up the leadership and prime minister positions.

Churchill remained a member of Parliament for Woodford until 1964. In January 1965 he suffered another severe stroke and died at age 90 on the 24th of that month.

It's been a long time coming, but this book is a grand conclusion of the work Manchester envisioned. It is a sprawling account of a great sprawling life engaged with great historical events over most of a century: from the last cavalry charge of the British Army to the hydrogen bomb. Churchill was an extraordinarily complicated and in many ways conflicted person, and this grand canvas provides the scope to explore his character and its origins in depth. Manchester and Reid have created a masterpiece. It is daunting to contemplate a three volume work totalling three thousand pages, but if you are interested in the subject, it is a uniquely rewarding read.