Lessons we can learn from scientific breakthroughs

On July 4, 2012, particle physics made international headlines with the announcement that scientists at the Large Hadron Collider had finally verified the existence of a particle that until then had been solidly theoretical. The unveiling of the Higgs boson remains one of the incredibly rare moments when this branch of physics – dedicated to the study and observation of the building blocks of matter – has made the front page of newspapers and magazines, not just for scientists, but the general public.

One detail of this extraordinary moment in science was the sheer number of scientists who were involved in making it happen – literally thousands of collaborators, all around the world.

Inside the tunnel housing Large Hadron Collider, which verified the existence of the Higgs bosonCredit:

That detail wasn’t lost on physicist, academic and science communicator Suzie Sheehy. Watching the announcement, she thought of the countless small teams of researchers around the world, each toiling away at their own tiny portion of this particle physics puzzle, until their combined, collaborative efforts brought forth one of the truly groundbreaking moments in modern science.

Seven years later, Sheehy was called on to deliver a plenary talk at a major international particle physics conference. But instead of following the tradition of talking about the science, she found herself drawn to the scientists.

“People make discoveries,” she writes in The Matter of Everything, which is, at its heart, a celebration not only of science but also of scientific collaboration. The book traces the history of particle physics through the 12 experimental breakthroughs that have been the fundamental building blocks of our understanding of the nature of matter.

The Matter of Everything by Suzie Sheehy.

The Matter of Everything by Suzie Sheehy.Credit: Supplied

There’s always a risk in writing about particle physics for a lay audience – readers can get lost in the bewildering cast of muons, pions, kaons, bosons, baryons, neutrinos and their up-ness, down-ness, spin, redness or blueness. Sheehy does an admirable job of navigating this by instead leading us through the remarkable journeys of the scientists who made these discoveries and bringing the dry facts of the sub-atomic world to life through deft explanations of the experiments that revealed them.

It’s delightful to be a fly on the wall as great names such as Ernest Rutherford and JJ Thomson – and many less well-known but no less impactful – pace their laboratories, hunch over equipment often cobbled together from literal string and sealing wax, argue loudly with each other in print and at conferences and scratch their heads as an experiment yet again delivers an unexpected result.

The book also grounds this arcane branch of science in everyday reality. Within one year of Wilhelm Rontgen discovering “X” rays that could reveal bones inside the body, X-ray devices were being used on the battlefields of the Italo-Ethiopian War in 1896. One scientist involved in the discovery of radioisotopes had his mother’s life saved by them soon after. Linear accelerators and microwave ovens share a scientific parent in radar. And the world wide web was famously conceived of by Tim Berners-Lee while working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (also known as CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider) as a way to collaborate and share large amounts of data between computers networked and mainframes.

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