This is not a biography of an individual scientist, nor a history of a particular set of scientific experiments, nor a study of a scientific institution, although there are elements of each. From observations and interviews gathered during six months--September, 1984, to March, 1985--at CERN, Gary Taubes supplies a picture of modern physics experimentation and a sense of the personality traits necessary to be a success in this highly competitive field. The focus of the book is Rubbia, an Italian with joint appointments at Harvard University and CERN, who is pictured as a ruthless genius, skilled both in the scientific and political aspects of physics. In the world of high-energy physics, it seems that the latter skills are as important as the former.
A secondary theme of the book is the decline of American high-energy physics. Before Rubbia, the United States dominated the field. This is a discipline sensitive to a number of influences, especially the willingness to spend money on new experimental technology. Taubes explains why the Europeans gambled and succeeded and why the Americans failed.
Although Taubes tries heroically to explain how physicists conduct high-energy experiments and the significance of the results, he is dealing with very esoteric science and is not entirely successful. It will require very careful reading to follow his explanations. Even without fully understanding the physics, however, readers will find his story of the physicists interesting and perhaps a bit disillusioning.