Book Review: Nobel Dreams

Nobel Dreams, by Gary Taubes, is the story of CERN’s Super Proton Synchrotron (SPS) particle accelerator–the predecessor to the Large Hadron Collider, which contained the world’s first proton-anti-proton collider–as it was operated in the early 80’s. The star of this book is Carlo Rubbia, the experimentalist who headed the Underground Area 1 (UA1) collaboration, an experiment attached to the SPS.

In the first half of the book, Taubes recounts how Rubbia’s talent for electronics, his cutthroat personality, and his intense politicking saw him become the most powerful person at CERN. Rubbia used his influence to get the SPS adapted to collide protons with anti-protons–a radical idea at the time–in hopes of reaching high enough energies to discover the W and Z bosons, the mediators of the weak force. In 1983 UA1 did discover the W and Z bosons, although Rubbia claimed a discovery before this was statistically warranted–a move that ensured glory for his team over UA2, a competing experiment attached to the SPS. This work promptly and predictably resulted in Rubbia and the accelerator physicist Simon van der Meer being awarded the Nobel prize in 1984.

The second half of this book gives a detailed account of some of Rubbia’s and UA1’s subsequent work: the search for supersymmetry from September 1984 until March 1985. Following the discovery of apparent anomalies in the data in the form of monojets and dijets, Rubbia claimed prematurely that UA1 had discovered “new physics,” to be sure that another team wouldn’t beat him to a discovery. This signal was found by the data analysts and theorists to be nothing more than background, despite great resistance from Rubbia who badly wanted a second trip to Sweden.

The second part of the book is a tad boring at times since it recounts in detail events and conversations as they happened, which is not always interesting to read. It does, however, give an insight to academic politics, the daily workings of forefront researchers, and the dangers of seeing patterns where there are none.

The final paragraph is a conversation between Taubs and Alvaro de Rujula, a CERN-based theoretical physicist, which is rather telling given the unhealthy dominance that string theory research has had in theoretical physics during recent decades, so I’ll reproduce it here:

On August 4th, 1985, I sat in the cantina at CERN drinking beer with Alvaro de Rujula. We talked about whether the demise of the monojets had created a corresponding lull in the supersymmetry work. Or whether the theorists were so hot on superstrings that they would continue on supersymmetry undeterred as well. De Rujula predicted that 90 percent of the theorists would work on superstrings and the connection with supersymmetry, because it was fashionable. When he intimated that this was not a healthy state, I asked him what he would prefer to work on. rather than answer directly, he digressed.

“It must be remembered,” de Rujula told me, “that the two people most responsible for the development of superstrings, that is to say, Green and Schwarz, have spent ten to fifteen years systematically working on something that was not fashionable. In fact, they were ridiculed by people for their stubborn adherence to it. So when people come and attempt to convince you that one must work on the most fashionable subject, it is pertinent to remember that the great steps are always made by those who don’t work on the most fashionable subject.”

“The question then,” I said, “is what do you work on instead? What will your next paper be on?”

“That’s a question for each theorist to ask himself,” he replied. “And it depends on whether you want to survive as a theorist, or you have the guts to think that pride in your own work is more important than the momentary recognition of your fashionable contribution. that’s for each person to decide by himself, depending on his level of confidence in his own genius.”

“So,” I repeated, “what is your next paper going to be on?”

“I’m trying to tell you,” de Rujula said, “that I have no idea.”