Unless, of course, you're already an experimental particle physicist. Then you can just move on, I suppose. Most Wanted Particle: The Inside Story of the Hunt for the Higgs, the Heart of the Future of Physics is Jon Butterworth's account of working at the Large Hadron Collider. It's published by The Experiment and retails for $24.95.
The book opens with a "tour of CERN." When Butterworth said, "You may imagine yourself in a nerdy little white van with a CERN logo on the side if this helps," I thought, "Yes. Yes, it does."
And this is where I must confess: When I was really young, I wanted to be every kind of scientist there was. I also loved to write, and that eventually won out, but there's a part of me that still wants to make discoveries. I don't know why, but I'm especially drawn to particle physics and cosmology. Tiny things and giant ones.
I don't know much, and this book confirmed that the daily life of a particle physicist isn't for me. But it's also fascinating.
The book is part science, of course, but it's also memoir and a discussion of science's place in society and the importance of funding it.
Why you might buy Most Wanted Particle:
First off, Jon Butterworth is an excellent writer.
He seems to know exactly when a non-scientist reader's brain is about to shut off, and he tells a story. An interesting one. He's funny and humble and makes you feel you'd like to have a pint at a pub with him. He also makes you feel he'd be happy to oblige.
If you know a young person who wants to become a physicist, buy her this book. It is a tribute to collaboration, and it provides remarkable insight into the enormity of how experimental physicists work.
Butterworth writes a column for the Guardian newspaper, so he knows how to target readers who are interested in physics, but are from other fields.
He writes with candor about the politics that were facing the Large Hadron Collider and science funding in general, and he participated in various groups that presented their case to the public.
He's also a great scientist. Peter Higgs himself calls the book "a vivid account of what the process of discovery was really like for an insider."
Butterworth includes glossaries in nearly every chapter, includes footnotes that sometimes reference earlier chapters, and does everything possible to help the reader keep their muons, gluons, and leptons straight.
Why you might not buy Most Wanted Particle:
This is not The Higgs Boson for Dummies. It's not intended to be. Butterworth assumes the reader is interested in the Large Hadron Collider and wants to know what happened on the inside.
The science is complex. There are formulas and Greek letters. It's all defined, but you won't come away from the book ready to work at CERN.
Butterworth is an experimental physicist. He was, in fact, skeptical that the Higgs boson existed. If you're looking for pure theory, you may be disappointed.
That said, he does explain the theories — and the holes in the theories — that drove the research.
Most Wanted Particle is a great read. It's not something you can pick up and digest on a Sunday afternoon, but that's a mark in its favor.
There is enough science to make me feel smarter, and enough story to keep me engaged. If you want to know where particle physics has been lately and where the field is going next, I can't recommend the book highly enough.
If you're intrigued but not sure, you might give it a look at the library first.
Full disclosure: I read this book, made available by the publisher, for free via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. These are my honest opinions.
Much of this content was originally published on News for Shoppers, where I wrote it.
The featured image is an aerial view of CERN by Maximilien Brice; https://cds.cern.ch/record/1295244