The Missing Particle That Sparked the Greatest Hunt in Science


By Ian Sample

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The biggest science story of our time, Massive spans four decades, weaving together the personal narratives and international rivalries behind the search for the “God” particle, or Higgs boson. A story of grand ambition, intense competition, clashing egos, and occasionally spectacular failures, Massive is the first book that reveals the science, culture, and politics behind the biggest unanswered question in modern physics — what gives things mass?

Drawing upon his unprecedented access to Peter Higgs, after whom the particle is named, award-winning science writer Ian Sample chronicles the multinational and multibillion-dollar quest to solve the mystery of mass. For scientists, to find the God particle is to finally understand the origin of mass, and until now, the story of their search has never been told.


"[Peter] Higgs himself has proved almost as elusive as his eponymous particle. Until now. Ian Sample . . . persevered long enough to secure an interview with him, and the results are among the highlights of Massive, a lively account of the genesis of both the LHC and its most famous particulate quarry. . . . Sample has interviewed quite a few other leading scientists, too, and proves adept at prising insights from them. . . . We are kept hooked by its fine reportage, which makes clear the sheer achievement of the scientists and engineers who have built the LHC, the most complex machine ever made in the service of pure science. We learn, too, of the many theoretical concepts that will be probed by it."
—Graham Farmelo, The Guardian (London)
"[Sample] shows a keen eye for the personal equation, even while narrating large swatches of physics history."
Wall Street Journal
"If you read just one popular-science book about the ubiquitous/elusive particle this year, let it be this one. . . . According to our reviewer Andy Parker, Ian Sample's account "could be the screenplay" for a Hollywood film about Higgs-hunting. Yet Sample is also careful with the science, giving credit to physicists other than Peter Higgs and avoiding the lazy assumption that particle physics begins and ends with the boson that bears his name."
Physics World, selected #3 on top 10 of 2010
"Sample describes the competition and politics behind the experiments that have sought the eponymous boson. . . . He relates amusing anecdotes . . . [and] spins a good yarn. . . . To get a sense of the sociology and politics of high-energy physics, Massive is a good place to start."
"An extraordinary book that tells the real human story behind one of the biggest science adventures of our time, managing to translate the complex concepts of particle physics into a real page-turner."
—Judges' announcement,
2011 Royal Society Winton Book Prize Shortlist
"This was my holiday page-turner: a clear and engrossing description of the physics of the Higgs boson (with surrounding weirdness), combined with a breathless account of the leap-frogging race for its discovery."
—Dara O'Briain, comedian, New Scientist,
Best Book of 2010: A Comedian's Choice
"A whirlwind tour of the discoveries that first revealed the subatomic world. . . . Like any good book, the excitement in Massive builds, culminating with the frenzied Higgs hunt at the end of LEP's run and more recently at the Tevatron at Fermilab in the US—both racing against time to bag the revered particle."
"The definition of the Higgs boson and how it gives everything mass, and why it's important, comes alive for readers with little prior science background. Recommended for general-interest and science collections alike!"
The Midwest Book Review
"[A] roller-coaster of a tale. Sample keeps the physics accessible, but the real pleasure is in the personalities and drama he reveals behind the hunt for one of the most elusive objects in the universe."
Publishers Weekly
"Lively popular account of late-20th-century physics, physicists and their machines. . . . Quality science journalism."
Kirkus Reviews
"The grand narrative in Ian Sample's book sweeps from the earliest speculations on the nature of matter; through the Second World War and the dawn of nuclear weapons; the paranoia of the Cold War (during which science was seen as a source of national security); rival efforts by the US and Europe to lead the world in times of peace; and the eventual emergence of worldwide scientific co-operation. . . . Massive carries the reader through the epic using individual episodes from the lives of some of the participants."
Physics World
"Massive is a tale of search and of discovery, of the hunt for a particle of high mass and very short lifespan called the Higgs Boson. . . . Go. Read. Enjoy."
New York Journal of Books
"A compelling work of popular science, full of mind-boggling ideas and a real sense of the excitement of scientific discovery."
—Guardian (London)
"British science writer Ian Sample's newest book, Massive: The Missing Particle that Sparked the Greatest Hunt in Science, relates the scientific and human history behind the LHC. . . . The focus on Peter Higgs may chagrin [other] researchers, who are probably weary of having their names lost in the glare of Higgs'. But that is an important example of the human story that Sample weaves in parallel to the scientific one."
—Dr. Fred Bortz, Dallas Morning News
"Sample is terrific at describing the various labs and their huge machines with their miles of underground tunneling and sudden collapses. Maxwell unified electricity and magnetism; Einstein, space and time; and now we're into supersymmetry and the weak force involved in radioactive decay. This book shimmers with possibilities."
Providence Journal-Bulletin
"Science journalist Sample does an excellent job of capturing the history of the subject and the vivid personalities of some of the most famous living physicists. . . . Massive is an excellent nontechnical introduction to the history of modern particle physics right up to the present . . . Highly recommended."
"The only thing more elusive than the Higgs boson, the so-called "God particle" that physicists built a $10 billion device to capture, is Peter Higgs himself. . . . Massive has achieved the journalistic equivalent of capturing the particle: The story pins down how a young Higgs, disenchanted with the use of atomic physics for weapons, came to propose a new type of particle that solved a snafu in a theory on symmetries. . . . Massive offers a larger window into the minds that dreamed of the Higgs and the culture that shaped their search, not a text to explain the basics of modern physics, and is accessible for the curious science layperson."
Science News: Magazine of the
Society for Science & the Public
"Ian Sample does a masterful job of telling the tale of the quest for the Higgs boson (aka the "God particle") in his new book Massive: The Missing Particle that Sparked the Greatest Hunt in Science (Basic Books, 2010). You don't need to know a thing about physics (though the author clearly does) to enjoy it. Sample has a talent for explaining things that are often obscured by mathematics (a kind of crutch, I think, for many scientists) in straightforward English prose. This skill, combined with the fact that Sample is a great storyteller with a great story to tell, make Massive an excellent read. You may not have liked science in school, but trust me when I say you'll very much enjoy the history of science in the hands of Ian Sample."
—Marshall Poe, New Books in History
"The physics book generating the most bloggy buzz in the latter part of 2010 would have to be Ian Sample's Massive: The Missing Particle that Sparked the Greatest Hunt in Science, about the as-yet undetected particle known as the Higgs boson. Detecting the Hiigs [sic] is the most immediate goal of the Large Hadron Collider, so it's a topic that's in the air at the moment. . . . This is, basically, a concise history of particle physics in the accelerator era, with a focus on the theoretical mechanism that accounts for the mass of the various particles making up the Standard Model. . . . engagingly written, well-researched, and a good, fast read."
—Chad Orzel, Uncertain Principles
"Often when you read a book about material very close to home, minor (or major) inaccuracies irritate. Happy to say this wasn't the case here, I didn't see any, and there was plenty of context and background which I didn't know and enjoyed reading."
—Jon Butterworth, The Guardian (London)
"The Higgs is a particle predicted by theoretical physics . . . that's thought to be responsible for endowing everything in the universe with mass. For theoretical particle physics that's a relatively exciting idea, but as a story the "hunt" for the Higgs is pretty odd, because, though Sample artfully avoids saying it in such blunt terms, nobody has ever actually come close to finding one in nature. . . . What merit Massive does have lies in its provocative synthesis of all the reasons why particle accelerators are a great idea."
—Good Men Project Magazine
"Just in case you're looking for the perfect gift for the science enthusiast in the family . . . Massive turns the dry-sounding hunt for the Higgs boson into the equivalent of a scientific detective story that you can't put down. . . . Vivid detail and backroom chatter [makes] Massive such a compelling read: it's about science as that science is being done, and we don't yet have all the answers—the Higgs continues to elude us. But for anyone curious about the story of the Higgs so far, you're not likely to find a better book than Sample's on the subject."
—Jennifer Ouellette, author of The Calculus Diaries:
How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas,
and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse
"Ian Sample's Massive is a marvelous book and well worth reading by both researchers and the layman. In it, Sample describes the history and the personalities behind the search for the Higgs boson. He dispels the common simplifying myth that a single lone genius named Peter Higgs was the sole theoretical mind behind the idea. Instead, Sample gives appropriate credit to the many theorists who made equally critical intellectual contributions."
—Don Lincoln, Fermilab / CERN Courier
"Sample does a wonderful job of telling about the history behind this subject. He's the first writer I know of who has gotten Peter Higgs to tell his story in detail. . . . Sample's book is full of wonderful stories about particle physics. . . . All in all, the book is a great read, by far this year's best popular book that could be recommended to lay people who want some idea of what's going on in particle physics now and why it is exciting."
—Peter Woit, author of Not Even Wrong: The Failure of
String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law
"[Massive] weaves the physics into a compelling human story; it's a science book that reads like a novel . . . [and] the best discussion I've read of what it will mean if they do finally manage to make the Higgs boson, and what finding it might tell us about the nature of the universe."
—Jo Marchant, author of Decoding the Heavens
"An utterly human account of how the times leading up to the exposition of the Higgs field shaped the science of the day and continue to shape our current searches in modern physics. . . . immensely well written and well researched."
The Language of Bad Physics/Scientopia Network
"For those of us with curiosity but little background in such matters, Massive provides a welcome introduction to the world inside the atom."
WhizBANG/Scientopia Network
"[An] entertaining and breathless read: Sample whizzes through the story, tracking the progress from Higgs' first inkling of an idea back in the early sixties right up to the present day, which sees the particle physics community poised on the verge of discovery, waiting to see if the Higgs' boson—the eponymous 'God particle'—will finally flash into existence as the LHC is ramped up to full power."
—Stephen Curry,
Reciprocal Space Blog on
"When the Higgs boson is discovered, it will be front page news, and this is the book that sets the stage. Ian Sample mixes cutting-edge science with behind-the-scenes stories to paint a compelling picture of one of modern science's greatest quests."
—Sean Carroll, author of From Eternity to Here

For my parents

The mountainside village of Crozet in eastern France has commanding views over miles of countryside. Villages and farmhouses dot the fields below, a few narrow roads meandering between them. Apart from a handful of modern buildings that sit in a huge ring on the landscape, there is nothing here that looks unusual.
But this is a far from ordinary place. Some of these surface buildings conceal deep shafts that reach down to the largest, most sophisticated machine mankind has ever built. If a giant tore it from the ground and stood it up like a hoop, it would reach more than five miles into the sky. To switch it on is to invite an electricity bill equal to that of a fair-sized city.
This is the home of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a multibillion-dollar atom smasher run by CERN, the European nuclear research organization, on the outskirts of Geneva. More than twenty countries clubbed together to pay for this leviathan and took over a decade to construct it. Ten thousand scientists here and in laboratories around the world are connected to the information it churns out via a distributed computing grid that has been touted as a new model for scientific collaboration.
Inside the machine itself, fragments of atoms are whipped up to within a whisker of the speed of light and slammed together in head-on collisions. These orchestrated acts of violence are said to re-create conditions that prevailed in the first moments of the Big Bang, the cosmic eruption that gave birth to the universe. Amid these fleeting specks of primordial fire, scientists look for answers to the most profound mysteries of nature.
One of these mysteries, perhaps the most intriguing of all, has hung over scientists for nearly half a century. The frank admission is this: scientists cannot explain why stuff weighs what it does. They can get close—very close, in fact—but there is always something missing. And they know the reason why. Smash something to pieces, into dust, then atoms, then fragments of atoms, and you will eventually reach the smallest building blocks of matter. The baffling, perplexing truth is that scientists do not know why these particles—from which all else is made—weigh anything at all.
In 1964, a physicist working with pen and paper in his Edinburgh office stumbled on what most scientists believe is the answer to the mystery. Peter Higgs conceived of an invisible field that reaches into every corner of the cosmos. At the beginning of time the field lay dormant, but, as the newborn universe expanded and cooled, it came to life and made its presence known. In that moment the building blocks of matter flipped from weightless to weighty. The massless became massive. The consequences are all around us. They are the bedrock of our existence.
Without the field, our universe would be a frantic storm of particles hurtling around at the speed of light. The atoms and molecules we know would not exist. Cosmic material would never have clumped together to form galaxies, stars, and planets. There would be no familiar structure to the universe—nowhere for life to gain a first, tentative foothold.
A scientist at CERN once told me the field was like the snow that had fallen that night and settled on this idyllic French-Swiss landscape. Imagine a snowfield that goes on forever in all directions. Beams of light move through it as though they have skis on: they zip through the field as if it weren't there. Some particles have snowshoes and make less swift progress. Others go barefoot and are destined to trudge around at a snail's pace. A particle's mass is simply a measure of how much it gets bogged down in the field.
The Large Hadron Collider was designed to reveal once and for all the true nature of the field that Peter Higgs envisaged. The machine should create ripples in the field that appear as particles called "Higgs bosons." They are the snowflakes that make up our cosmic snowfield and the final proof scientists need to fully explain why stuff weighs anything.
CERN is not the only place hunting for the particle. On the outskirts of Chicago, scientists at Fermilab, home to the second most powerful collider in the world, also made the particle their top priority. For the two laboratories on either side of the Atlantic, the decades-long hunt has become the greatest race in modern physics.
There is more to finding the Higgs particle than pride. It is the only missing piece of the Standard Model, a set of laws that describe all of the known particles in the universe. But that is only the beginning. A growing band of scientists believe the Higgs particle will not only solve the mystery of mass, but open a portal to a hidden world of particles and forces we can only begin to imagine.
The elusive nature and profound importance of the Higgs particle led one Nobel Prize–winning physicist to give it a grandiose nickname: the God particle. As you will find, if you read on, few things unite physicists more than their disdain for the name. Their contempt is equaled only by the joy of newspaper headline writers, for whom it has become a savior of a very different kind.
This book is the story of how the universe got its mass, and how an idea written down in a notebook nearly half a century ago became the focus of a global, multibillion-dollar hunt involving thousands of scientists and the largest, most complex machines ever built. Whichever way you look at it, this story is massive.

Long Road to Princeton
The drive up to Princeton could take the better part of a day, and that was if you were lucky. The route followed the coastline up the eastern seaboard, looped around the broad expanse of the Chesapeake Bay, and went on to Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia before finally arriving in the town that was once home to the greatest physicist of all, Albert Einstein.
Peter Higgs packed some clothes and a folder full of research notes and went out to the car with his wife, Jody, and their six-month-old son, Christopher. He swung the suitcase in the back and had a long look at the road map. Satisfied with the directions, he pulled away, working north and east through the tree-lined streets and out toward the highway as the town eased itself to life beneath the spring morning sun.
It was March 14, 1966. Higgs, a physicist at the University of Edinburgh, had moved to Chapel Hill the previous year to spend his sabbatical at the University of North Carolina.1 His work there had caught the eye of a prominent scientist, who invited him to give a seminar at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, one of the world's leading intellectual centers and the place where Einstein himself had spent much of his working life. The seminar was destined to be controversial: Higgs had proposed an idea that, if correct, could explain the origin of mass.
The trip turned out to be more than just another academic visit. It marked the beginning of a run of events that catapulted Higgs into the scientific limelight and set the stage for the greatest hunt in modern physics. Using multibillion-dollar machines occupying miles of underground tunnels, thousands of scientists have spent decades looking for the particle that formed the linchpin of Higgs's theory. Their mantra was simple: find the Higgs particle and the mystery of the origin of mass was solved.
For centuries, scientists had no idea that mass even had an origin, at least not in the modern sense of the phrase. The word "mass" described how much matter an object had, and matter was no more than a grand term for "stuff." A lump of rock had more mass than a loaf of bread (unless the baker was having an off-day), and that was that. The meaning of mass was so intuitive and tangible that no one seriously thought to question it.
Vague and incomplete notions of mass emerged in antiquity and were developed through the Middle Ages. Giles of Rome, a prominent theologian and one of the most influential thinkers of the late thirteenth century, took an important conceptual step when he distinguished between the dimensions of an object and the amount of matter it contained.2 A block of ice, for example, clearly changed shape when it melted into water, evaporated into steam, condensed, and became frozen solid again. Yet the amount of matter remained the same, he said, whichever form it was in. The observation, which surely made for lively theological discussions about the Trinity, mirrors the modern definitions of volume and mass.
In the early fourteenth century, the Parisian philosopher Jean Buridan drew on the concept of mass when he described how throwing an object gave it an impetus that depended on how much matter it contained and the speed at which it was lobbed.3 The sixteenth-century German astronomer Johannes Kepler took things further, arguing that planets stayed true to their orbits and didn't hurtle around space like scattered snooker balls thanks to the inertia arising from their enormous masses.
Despite the valuable work of early philosophers and astronomers, the term "mass" was not used systematically until 1687, when Isaac Newton laid the foundations of classical mechanics in a great but wholly impenetrable work, the Principia.4 Newton said mass was a quantity of matter that arose from an object's volume and density. An object's mass governed its inertia, or how much it resisted being pushed around, and also how strongly it felt the force of gravity. With these definitions in place, Newton derived the basic laws of motion.
Newton had an intuitive grasp of mass and matter that went far deeper than he let on in the Principia. Worldly objects, he believed, were made up of countless tiny particles that were created by God and could never be destroyed. The particles came in different forms and sizes that stuck together to make different materials. All man could hope to do was fashion new shapes and forms from these conglomerations of vanishingly small particles.
Nearly twenty years after the Principia was published, Newton allowed himself to speculate on the nature of matter in his next great work, the more accessible Opticks: "It seems probable to me, that God in the beginning formed matter in solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, moveable particles . . . so very hard, as never to wear or break in pieces," he wrote.5
Newton's musings on matter were not so far off the mark. Today, scientists think of matter as being built up from a handful of particles that are almost indestructible. It took scientists more than half a century to identify the most basic building blocks of matter, which come together to form the innards of atoms. Variations of these give us the chemical elements of the periodic table: atoms that form metals, crystals, liquids, and gases and that intermingle to make an almost endless list of molecules.
Scientists call the ultimate building blocks of matter "fundamental" or "elementary" particles, and, by definition, they cannot be broken up into smaller pieces. The first was discovered in 1897 by J. J. Thomson at the Cavendish laboratory at Cambridge University.6 Thomson, like many other physicists of his time, was intrigued by the nature of glowing rays that appeared when a voltage was applied across glass tubes filled with low-pressure gases. The rays moved from the cathode, which is the negatively charged electrode, to the anode, which is positive. What the rays were made of was a mystery.
Thomson began a series of experiments to investigate these curious "cathode rays." In one, he used a 15-inch glass tube coated at one end with phosphorescent paint. Thomson modified the anode by creating a slit in it, so some of the rays coming from the cathode would pass through it, making a bright spot when they hit the phosphor. His masterstroke was to build into the glass vessel a second set of electrodes that the rays passed through. When Thomson linked the electrodes up to a battery, he found that the spot darted away from the negative plate and toward the positive one.
Further experiments showed that cathode rays were composed of streams of tiny, negatively charged particles. Thomson named them "electrons," a term introduced by the Irishman George Johnstone Stoney twenty years earlier, and suggested they were ubiquitous ingredients of all the atoms scientists knew. Emboldened by his discovery, Thomson proposed the "plum pudding" model of the atom, so called because it pictured atoms as positively charged balls of matter (the pudding) dotted with tiny negative electrons (the plums).
It turned out that Thomson's atomic pudding was not what Nature ordered .7 The idea fell apart when the New Zealand–born chemist and physicist Ernest Rutherford, based on his work with radium, announced the startling news that atoms were mostly empty. Instead, he said in 1911, almost all of an atom's mass was bundled up in a central, positive nucleus. Later that decade, Rutherford probed the nucleus more deeply and found evidence for a new kind of particle within, the positively charged proton.


On Sale
Apr 3, 2012
Page Count
272 pages
Basic Books

Ian Sample

About the Author

Ian Sample is a science correspondent at the Guardian, and before that at New Scientist. He holds a PhD in biomedical science and was named investigative journalist of the year in 2005 by the Association of British Science Writers. He lives in London.

Learn more about this author