I’ve written a book, “Anomaly! – Collider Physics and the Quest for New Phenomena at Fermilab“.

Well, that’s no news for those who know me, and/or follow my other blog. In fact, I have spoken at length about the project in several occasions in the blog. Many of my colleagues also know I have written the book because I interviewed them – over 100 interviews held between 2013 and 2015, mostly but not uniquely with ex collaborators of the CDF experiment, which is the focus of the work.

However if you do not know what the book is about, I will summarize it here by using the same text that will appear on the back cover:

From the mid-1980s, an international collaboration of 600 physicists embarked on the investigation of subnuclear physics at the high-energy frontier. As well as discovering the top quark, the heaviest elementary particle ever observed, the physicists analyzed their data to seek signals of new physics which could revolutionize our understanding of nature.

Anomaly! tells the story of that quest, and  focuses specifically on the finding of several unexplained effects which were unearthed in the process. These anomalies proved highly controversial within the large team: to some collaborators they called for immediate publication, while to others their divulgation threatened to jeopardize the reputation of the experiment.

Written in a confidential, narrative style, this book looks at the sociology of a large scientific collaboration, providing insight in the relationships between top physicists at the turn of the millennium. The stories offer an insider’s view of the life cycle of the “failed” discoveries that unavoidably accompany even the greatest endeavors in modern particle physics.

So that’s pretty much what the book is about. I discovered yesterday that World Scientific, the publisher, has already set up a page for the book, despite the fact that the publication is several months away (it takes time to produce it, it seems!). In there, you can find five nice endorsements by Edward Witten, Gordon Kane, Peter Woit, Sean Carroll and Gianfrancesco Giudice. And also a table of contents:

  • The Standard Model and Beyond
  • The Tevatron and CDF
  • Revenge of the Slimeballs
  • The Road to the Top
  • Run 1
  • Top Quark Battles
  • The Discovery of the Top Quark
  • The Impossible Event
  • Preon Dreams
  • A Personal Interlude
  • The Superjets Affair
  • Scalar Quarks?

Basically, as you can sort of gather from the titles above, the first two chapters are devoted to give readers a quick-and-dirty introduction to particle physics; and the rest of them focus on the history of the experiment, through anecdotes and physics explanations.

A preliminary layout of the book cover.

In writing the book I have always considered as my target interested laypersons who, while uneducated on particle physics, are willing to try and read about it, pushed by their curiosity for cutting-edge science. But I am a demanding author: I pretend to let the reader learn concepts that are *really* at the cutting edge of the science we do.

The way I tried to pull that off was by using many analogies. I strongly believe that the analogy is truly at the heart of our cognitive process (proof be it that I have on the side of my bed a book by D.Hofstadter, “L’analogie, coeur de la pensée” – and my French is very poor!)… But I have discussed this topic elsewhere at length, and I am divagating.

Instead, here I will make an example or two of what I mean, by showing how I tried to explain tough concepts through analogies. Ready ?

1 – What is the trigger and what we do with it. 

At the end of chapter 2, after describing the CDF detector, there comes a part where I explain what is the trigger system and why on earth the CDF experimentalists were happy saving to disk 50 collision events per second, when the true rate of collisions exceeded several hundred thousand Hertz. Why, one could say – you spend 200 million bucks putting this thing together and then you throw away 99.99% of the data ?? So I explained this with an analogy:

“[…] imagine you are digging holes in the ground in order to find out about the geological history of a piece of land. We assume that there has been a horizontal stratification of the ground in layers deposited during successive historical epochs, so the information we obtain by collecting samples at different depths is roughly the same wherever we dig. If we have studied with many 10-meter-deep holes the ground at various locations, finding everywhere the same pattern of layers of underground rock, then the first time we manage to dig a hole deeper than 10 meters we go straight to the samples of soil extracted from the deepest layers. We already know everything about the more shallow layers: a quick look at the new sample suffices to verify they are similar to those of the other holes. Similarly, the trigger at a high-luminosity hadron collider is designed to select the rarest, most energetic events, “digging as deep as possible.” Less energetic events do not teach us anything we do not already know.”

2 – Integrated luminosity

Integrated luminosity is not too hard a concept, but it can be tricky to explain it well without formulas (formulas are anathema in a sci-pop book!). So in chapter 2, after describing what are instantaneous luminosity and cross section, I clarify the meaning of “collecting lots of data” and measuring the lump with integrated luminosity, thus:

“[…] imagine you are a speleologist at the entrance of a huge unknown cavern. It is dark, and your lamp only allows you to illuminate the closest features around you. A more luminous lamp would allow you to see deeper into the chasm; alternatively, you might take a long-exposure photograph. By “integrating” the scarce light bouncing off a distant wall of the cavern in a long exposure you may capture faint details otherwise invisible to the naked eye. Similarly, a large integrated luminosity allows you to study more infrequent subatomic processes. You can get it by either running at high instantaneous luminosity, or by integrating for a long time.”