God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?

God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?

by Leon Lederman, Dick Teresi

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A Nobel Prize–winning physicist’s “funny, clever, entertaining” account of the history of particle physics and the hunt for a Higgs boson (Library Journal).
In this extraordinarily accessible and witty book, Leon Lederman—“the most engaging physicist since the late, much-missed Richard Feynman” (San Francisco Examiner)—offers a fascinating tour that takes us from the Greeks’ earliest scientific observations through Einstein and beyond in an inspiring celebration of human curiosity. It ends with the quest for the Higgs boson, nicknamed the God Particle, which scientists hypothesize will help unlock the last secrets of the subatomic universe. This is not only an enlightening journey through baryons and hadrons and leptons and electrons—it also “may be the funniest book about physics ever written” (The Dallas Morning News).
“One of the clearest, most enjoyable new science books in years . . . explains the entire history of physics and cosmology. En route, you’ll laugh so hard you won’t realize how much you are learning.” —San Francisco Examiner
“The story of the search for the ultimate constituents of matter has been told many times before, but never with more verve and wit. . . . His hilarious account of how he helped persuade President Reagan to approve the construction of the Super Collider is itself worth the price of the book.” —Los Angeles Times

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547524627
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 06/26/2006
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 440,687
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Leon Lederman, PhD, a 1988 Nobel laureate in physics, is director emeritus of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, the Pritzker Professor of Science at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and a resident scholar at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy. Among the many awards he has received for his contributions to science are the Wolf Prize and the Enrico Fermi Award. 

Read an Excerpt



Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion.

— Democritus of Abdera

In the Very Beginning there was a void — a curious form of vacuum — a nothingness containing no space, no time, no matter, no light, no sound. Yet the laws of nature were in place, and this curious vacuum held potential. Like a giant boulder perched at the edge of a towering cliff ...

Wait a minute.

Before the boulder falls, I should explain that I really don't know what I'm talking about. A story logically begins at the beginning. But this story is about the universe, and unfortunately there are no data for the Very Beginning. None, zero. We don't know anything about the universe until it reaches the mature age of a billionth of a trillionth of a second — that is, some very short time after creation in the Big Bang. When you read or hear anything about the birth of the universe, someone is making it up. We are in the realm of philosophy. Only God knows what happened at the Very Beginning (and so far She hasn't let on).

Now, where were we? Oh yes ...

Like a giant boulder perched at the edge of a towering cliff, the void's balance was so exquisite that only whim was needed to produce a change, a change that created the universe. And it happened. The nothingness exploded. In this initial incandescence, space and time were created.

Out of this energy, matter emerged — a dense plasma of particles that dissolved into radiation and back to matter. (Now we're working with at least a few facts and some speculative theory in hand.) Particles collided and gave birth to new particles. Space and time boiled and foamed as black holes formed and dissolved. What a scene!

As the universe expanded and cooled and grew less dense, particles coalesced, and forces differentiated. Protons and neutrons formed, then nuclei and atoms and huge clouds of dust, which, still expanding, condensed locally here and there to form stars, galaxies, and planets. On one planet — a most ordinary planet, orbiting a mediocre star, one speck on the spiral arm of a standard galaxy — surging continents and roiling oceans organized themselves, and out of the oceans an ooze of organic molecules reacted and built proteins, and life began. Plants and animals evolved out of simple organisms, and eventually human beings arrived.

The human beings were different primarily because they were the only species intensely curious about their surroundings. In time, mutations occurred, and an odd subset of humans began roaming the land. They were arrogant. They were not content to enjoy the magnificence of the universe. They asked "How?" How was the universe created? How can the "stuff" of the universe be responsible for the incredible variety in our world: stars, planets, sea otters, oceans, coral, sunlight, the human brain? The mutants had posed a question that could be answered — but only with the labor of millennia and with a dedication handed down from master to student for a hundred generations. The question also inspired a great number of wrong and embarrassing answers. Fortunately, these mutants were born without a sense of embarrassment. They were called physicists.

Now, after examining this question for more than two thousand years — a mere flicker on the scale of cosmological time — we are beginning to glimpse the entire story of creation. In our telescopes and microscopes, in our observatories and laboratories — and on our notepads — we begin to perceive the outlines of the pristine beauty and symmetry that governed in the first moments of the universe. We can almost see it. But the picture is not yet clear, and we sense that something is obscuring our vision — a dark force that blurs, hides, obfuscates the intrinsic simplicity of our world.


This book is devoted to one problem, a problem that has confounded science since antiquity. What are the ultimate building blocks of matter? The Greek philosopher Democritus called the smallest unit the atomos (literally "not able to be cut"). This atom is not the atom you learned about in high school science courses, like hydrogen, helium, lithium, and proceeding all the way to uranium and beyond. Those are big, klunky, complicated entities by today's standards (or by Democritus's standards, for that matter). To a physicist, or even a chemist, such atoms are veritable garbage cans of smaller particles — electrons, protons, and neutrons — and the protons and neutrons in turn are buckets full of still smaller guys. We need to know the most primitive objects there are, and we need to understand the forces that control the social behavior of these objects. It is Democritus's a-tom, not your chemistry teacher's atom, that is the key to matter.

The matter we see around us today is complex. There are about a hundred chemical atoms. The number of useful combinations of atoms can be calculated, and it is huge: billions and billions. Nature uses these combinations, called molecules, to build planets, suns, viruses, mountains, paychecks, Valium, literary agents, and other useful items. It was not always so. During the earliest moments after the creation of the universe in the Big Bang, there was no complex matter as we know it today. No nuclei, no atoms, nothing that was made of simpler pieces. This is because the searing heat of the early universe did not allow the formation of composite objects; such objects, if formed by transient collisions, would be instantly decomposed into their most primitive constituents. There was perhaps one kind of particle and one force — or even a unified particle/force — and the laws of physics. Within this primordial entity were contained the seeds of the complex world in which humans evolved, perhaps primarily to think about these things. You might find the primordial universe boring, but to a particle physicist, those were the days! Such simplicity, such beauty, however mistily visualized in our speculations.


Even before my hero Democritus, there were Greek philosophers who dared to try to explain the world using rational arguments and rigorously excluding superstition, myth, and the intervention of gods. These had served as valuable assets in accommodating to a world full of fearsome and seemingly arbitrary phenomena. But the Greeks were impressed too by regularities, by the alternation of day and night, the seasons, the action of fire and wind and water. By the year 650 B.C. a formidable technology had arisen in the Mediterranean basin. The people there knew how to survey land and navigate by the stars; they had a sophisticated metallurgy and a detailed knowledge of the positions of stars and planets for making calendars and assorted predictions. They made elegant tools, fine textiles, and elaborately formed and decorated pottery. And in one of the colonies of the Greek empire, the bustling town of Miletus on the west coast of what is now modern Turkey, the belief was articulated that the seemingly complex world was intrinsically simple — and that this simplicity could be discovered through logical reasoning. About two hundred years later, Democritus of Abdera proposed a-toms as the key to a simple universe, and the search was on.

The genesis of physics was astronomy because the earliest philosophers looked up in awe at the night sky and sought logical models for the patterns of stars, the motions of planets, the rising and setting of the sun. Over time, scientists turned their eyes earthward: phenomena taking place at the surface of the earth — apples falling from trees, the flight of an arrow, the regular motion of a pendulum, winds, and tides — gave rise to a set of "laws of physics." Physics blossomed during the Renaissance, becoming a separate, distinct discipline by about 1500. As the centuries rolled by, and as our powers of observation sharpened with the invention of microscopes, telescopes, vacuum pumps, clocks, and so on, more and more phenomena were uncovered that could be described meticulously by recording numbers in notebooks, by constructing tables and drawing graphs, and then by triumphantly noting conformity to mathematical behavior.

By the early part of the twentieth century atoms had become the frontier of physics; in the 1940s, nuclei became the focus of research. Progressively, more and more domains became subject to observation. With the development of instruments of ever-increasing power, we looked more and more closely at things smaller and smaller. The observations and measurements were followed inevitably by syntheses, compact summaries of our understanding. With each major advance, the field divided; some scientists followed the "reductionist" road toward the nuclear and subnuclear domain, while others followed the path to a greater understanding of atoms (atomic physics), molecules (molecular physics and chemistry), nuclear physics, and so on.


I started out as a molecules kid. In high school and early college I loved chemistry, but I gradually shifted toward physics, which seemed cleaner — odorless, in fact. I was strongly influenced, too, by the kids in physics, who were funnier and played better basketball. The giant of our group was Isaac Halpern, now a professor of physics at the University of Washington. He claimed that the only reason he went to see his posted grades was to determine whether the A had a "flat top or a pointy top." Naturally, we all loved him. He could also broad-jump farther than any of us.

I became intrigued with the issues in physics because of their crisp logic and clear experimental consequences. In my senior year in college, my best friend from high school, Martin Klein, the now eminent Einstein scholar at Yale, harangued me on the splendors of physics during a long evening over many beers. That did it. I entered the U.S. Army with a B.S. in chemistry and a determination to be a physicist if I could only survive basic training and World War II.

I was born at last into the world of physics in 1948, when I began my Ph.D. research working with the world's most powerful particle accelerator of its time, the synchrocyclotron at Columbia University. Dwight Eisenhower, president of Columbia, cut the ribbon dedicating the machine in June of 1950. Having helped Ike win the war, I was obviously much appreciated by the Columbia authorities, who paid me almost $4,000 for just one year of ninety-hour weeks. These were heady times. In the 1950s, the synchrocyclotron and other powerful new devices created the new discipline of particle physics.

To the outsider, perhaps the most salient characteristic of particle physics is the equipment, the instruments. I joined the quest just as particle accelerators were coming of age. They dominated physics for the next four decades, and still do. The first "atom smasher" was a few inches in diameter. Today the world's most powerful accelerator is housed at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois. Fermilab's machine, called the Tevatron, is four miles around, and smashes protons and antiprotons together with unprecedented energies. By the year 2000 or so, the Tevatron's monopoly of the energy frontier will be broken. The Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), the mother of all accelerators, presently being built in Texas, will be fifty-four miles around.

Sometimes we ask ourselves: have we taken a wrong turn somewhere? Have we become obsessed with the equipment? Is particle physics some sort of arcane "cyber science," with huge groups of researchers and megalithic machines dealing with phenomena so abstract that even She is not sure what happens when particles collide at high energies? We can gain confidence and inspiration by viewing the process as following a chronological Road, one that could plausibly have started in the Greek colony of Miletus in 650 B.C. The Road's destination is a city where all is understood — where the sanitation workers and even the mayor know how the universe works. Many have followed The Road: Democritus, Archimedes, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Faraday, all the way to Einstein, Fermi, and my contemporaries.

The Road narrows and broadens; it passes long stretches of nothing (like Route 80 through Nebraska) and curvy sections of intense activity. There are tempting side streets labeled "electrical engineering," "chemistry," "radio communications," or "condensed matter." Those who have taken the side streets have changed the way people live on this planet. But those who stay with The Road find that it is clearly marked all the way with the same sign: "How does the universe work?" It is on this Road that we find the accelerators of the 1990s.

I got on The Road at Broadway and 120th Street in New York City. In those days the scientific problems seemed very clear and very important. They had to do with the properties of what's called the strong nuclear force and some theoretically predicted particles called pi mesons, or pions. Columbia's accelerator was designed to produce lots of pions by bombarding innocent targets with protons. The instrumentation was rather simple at the time, simple enough for a graduate student to understand.

Columbia was a hotbed of physics in the 1950s. Charles Townes would soon discover the laser and win the Nobel Prize. James Rainwater would win the Prize for his nuclear model, and Willis Lamb for measuring the tiny shift in hydrogen's spectral lines. Nobel laureate Isadore Rabi, who inspired all of us, headed up a team that included Norman Ramsey and Polykarp Kusch, both to become Nobel winners in due course. T. D. Lee shared the Nobel for his theory of parity violation. The density of professors who had been anointed with Swedish holy water was both exhilarating and depressing. As young faculty, some of us wore lapel buttons that read "Not Yet."

For me the Big Bang of professional recognition took place in the period 1959–1962 when two of my Columbia colleagues and I carried out the first-ever measurement of high-energy neutrino collisions. Neutrinos are my favorite particles. A neutrino has almost no properties: no mass (or very little), no electric charge, and no radius — and, adding insult to injury, no strong force acts on it. The euphemism used to describe a neutrino is "elusive." It is barely a fact, and it can pass through millions of miles of solid lead with only a tiny chance of being involved in a measurable collision.

Our 1961 experiment provided the cornerstone for what came to be known in the 1970s as the "standard model" of particle physics. In 1988 the experiment was recognized by the Royal Swedish Academy of Science with the Nobel Prize. (Everybody asks, why did they wait twenty-seven years? I don't really know. I used to give my family the facetious excuse that the Academy was dragging its feet because they couldn't decide which of my great achievements to honor.) Winning the Prize was of course a great thrill. But that thrill does not really compare with the incredible excitement that gripped us at the moment when we realized our experiment was a success.

Physicists today feel the same emotions that scientists have felt for centuries. The life of a physicist is filled with anxiety, pain, hardship, tension, attacks of hopelessness, depression, and discouragement. But these are punctuated by flashes of exhilaration, laughter, joy, and exultation. These epiphanies come at unpredictable times. Often they are generated simply by the sudden understanding of something new and important, something beautiful, that someone else has revealed. However, if you are mortal, like most of the scientists I know, the far sweeter moments come when you yourself discover some new fact about the universe. It's astonishing how often this happens at 3 A.M., when you are alone in the lab and you have learned something profound, and you realize that not one of the other five billion people on earth knows what you now know. Or so you hope. You will, of course, hasten to tell them as soon as possible. This is known as "publishing."

This is a book about a string of infinitely sweet moments that scientists have had over the past 2,500 years. These sweet moments add up to our present knowledge about what the universe is and how it works. The pain and depression are part of the story, too. Often it is the obstinacy, the stubbornness, the pure orneriness of nature that gets in the way of the "Eureka" moment.

The scientist, however, cannot depend on Eureka moments to make his life fulfilling. There must be some joy in day-to-day activities. For me, this joy is in designing and building apparatus that will teach us about this extraordinarily abstract subject. When I was an impressionable graduate student at Columbia, I helped a world-famous professor visiting from Rome build a particle counter. I was the virgin in this and he a past master. Together we turned the brass tube on the lathe (it was after 5 P.M. and the machinists had all gone home). We soldered on the glass-tipped end caps and strung a gold wire through the short, insulated metal straw penetrating the glass. Then we soldered some more. We flushed the special gas through the counter for a few hours while hooking an oscilloscope to the wire, protected from a 1,000-volt power supply by a special capacitor. My professor friend — let's call him Gilberto, because that was his name — kept peering at the green trace of the oscilloscope while lecturing me in faultlessly broken English on the history and evolution of particle counters. Suddenly Gilberto went stark, raving wild. "Mamma mia! Regardo incredibilo! Primo secourso!" (Or something like that.) He shouted, pointed, lifted me up in the air — even though I was six inches taller and fifty pounds heavier than he — and danced me around the room.


Excerpted from "The God Particle"
by .
Copyright © 1993 Leon Lederman and Dick Teresi.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Dramatis Personae,
The Invisible Soccer Ball,
The First Particle Physicist,
Interlude A: A Tale of Two Cities,
Looking for the Atom: The Mechanics,
Still Looking for the Atom: Chemists and Electricians,
The Naked Atom,
Interlude B: The Dancing Moo-Shu Masters,
Accelerators: They Smash Atoms, Don't They?,
Interlude C: How We Violated Parity in a Weekend ... and Discovered God,
The God Particle At Last,
Inner Space, Outer Space, and the Time Before Time,
A Note on History and Sources,
About the Authors,

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