Report from Colbert

By Sean Carroll | March 10, 2010 8:56 pm

Reporting back from a hotel in midtown Manhattan, having made it through the Colbert Report basically unscathed. In fact the experience was great from beginning to end. Update: here is the clip.

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'Sean Carroll
The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
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Monday morning I talked on the phone with Emily Lazar, a researcher for the show. I was really impressed right from the start: it was clear that she wanted to make it easy for me to get across some substantive message, within the relatively confining parameters of what is basically a comedy show. From start to finish everyone I dealt with was a consummate pro.

We got picked up at our hotel in a car that brought us to the Colbert studio, and hustled inside under relatively high security — people whispering into lapel microphones that we had arrived and were headed to the green room. Very exciting. The green room was actually green, which is apparently unusual. I got pep talks from a couple of the staff people, who encouraged me to keep things as simple as possible. They made an interesting point about scientists: they make the perfect foils for Stephen’s character, since they actually rely on facts rather than opinions.


Stephen himself dropped by to say hi, and to explain the philosophy of his character — I suppose there still are people out there who could be guests on the show who haven’t ever actually watched it. Namely, he’s a complete idiot, and it’s my job to educate him. But it’s not my job to be funny — that’s his bailiwick. The guests are encouraged to be friendly and sincere, but not pretend to be comedians.

We got to sit in the audience as the early segments were taped, which were hilarious. I feel bad that my own interview is going to be the low point of the show, laughs-wise. But I went out on cue, and fortunately I wasn’t at all jittery — too much going on to have time to get nervous, I suppose.

I had some planned responses for what I thought were the most obvious questions. Of which, he asked zero. Right off the bat Colbert managed to catch me off guard by asking a much more subtle question than I had anticipated — isn’t the early universe actually very disorderly? That would be true if you ignored gravity, but a big part of my message is that you can’t ignore gravity! The problem was, I had promised myself that I wouldn’t use the word “entropy,” resisting the temptation to lapse into jargon. But he had immediately pinpointed an example where the association of “low entropy” with “orderly” wasn’t a perfect fit. So I had to go back on my pledge and bring up entropy, although I didn’t exactly give a careful definition.

As everyone warned me, the whole interview went by in an absolute flash, although it really lasts about five minutes. There was a fun moment when we agreed that “Wrong Turn Into Yesterday” would make a great title for a progressive-rock album. Overall, I think I could have done a better job at explaining the underlying science, but at least I hope I successfully conveyed the spirit of the endeavor. We’ll have to see how it comes across on TV.

I shouldn’t end without including some good words about the bag of swag. Not only does every guest get a goodie bag that includes a bottle of excellent tequila, it also includes a $100 gift certificate for Donors Choose. How awesome is that?

And as we left the studio, there were some young audience members lurking around hoping for a glimpse of the great man himself. They had to settle for me, but they sheepishly asked if I would pose for a picture with them. Not yet having perfected my diva act, I happily complied. I hope they take away some great memories of the night.

  • CW

    Nice job, Sean. I could tell that you were trying to avoid using jargon, like entropy, but it wasn’t distracting. You explained things very nicely. And I’m halfway through your book and really enjoying it! Thanks!

  • Joel Fox

    Saw your segment on Colbert and want to know more.
    Just added your book to my Amazon wish list and look forward to reading.

    Googled your site and enjoyed your behind the scenes view of The Colbert Show, as I’m sure I’ll enjoy “From Eternity to Here.”

  • Meng Bomin

    Who is this “we” you speak of? Did you have company or have you started to go Unabomber on us?

  • S

    Here is a good Donors Choose project:

  • HP

    Wait, wait, wait. Excellent tequila?

    añejo, reposado, o plata?

    The world wants to know.

  • JohnFrum

    Just saw the interview. Nicce job. I searched for “Wrong turn into yesterday” to see if there was in fact and album by that name. Sadly I don’t think there is. This blog was the only hit.

  • Joseph Picard

    “Wrong turn into Yesterday” Has will be the greatest album of the 23rd century. It was great. I really look forward to remembering it. I just wish I have found a source of MP3s of it, as I will sell it at a pawn shop last week, and have missed it ever since my third wife will divorce me.

    Joseph Picard
    Sci-fi author of Lifehack and Watching Yute

    PS: Just watched the interview. Good stuff.

  • JohnFrum

    Sean, this is something I’ve always wondered about this show. Sometimes the guest gets up right away when it’s over and this looks bad on camera. Cobert tries to engage the guest to keep them seated but it doesn’t always work. Did they ask you to stay seated for a moment as the camera pulls back to break?

  • Earl

    Cool. Look forward to seeing it.

    I’m not that surprised that you were asked about the early universe actually being highly order! I’m about a third of the way through “From Eternity to Here”, and being a full-time physicist haven’t really struggled with understanding most of the technicalities. That is, with the exception of a low entropy initial condition. Even though I was previously familiar with the idea, after reading about in the book I started thinking it over….. it is quite counter-intuitive! We have a hot early universe, so hot that matter hasn’t even settled down to be a liquid or even a gas. Basic physics teaches us that disorder (entropy) is greater for gases than solids. That reasoning would lead us to infer that the early universe is actually high-entropy.

    Obviously, this simplistic (high-entropy) interpretation of the early universe’s entropy isn’t right, and it has been a pleasure reading FEtH and re-evaluating some of my simplistic intuitions about entropy and the early universe. What I hadn’t thought about much before was the importance of the clumpiness of the current universe, is much more disordered than the smoothly dense early universe. This seems like the key point!? I guess the underlying intuition that is being violated by this picture is that, interpreting disorder in terms of macrostates and microstates, we have to think about planets as microscopic objects!

  • Martin

    I don’t know how else to explain it besides Sean appearance, but the term “General Relativity” is trending Yahoo at the 7th spot. Rock on, Sean!

  • Josh

    I enjoyed your interview. I thought you did a great job of communicating some ideas in layman’s terms. Your book looks really interesting, I look forward to the head scratching moments that surely will accompany its reading.

    All the best.

  • Sean

    John Frum– Yes, they reminded me several times not to stand up at the end. Not everyone manages to remember, apparently.

  • Jon

    Mr. Carroll,

    Just finished watching your interview on Colbert, and for what it’s worth, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I look forward to reading your book and paper titled Why (Almost All) Cosmologists Are Atheists.


  • Betul

    I really enjoyed the interview, Sean. I especially liked how you took the ‘cake’ example and actually used it to explain your theory. Good response!

  • ObsessiveMathsFreak

    “Sorry, Video’s are not currently available in your country.”

    So much for the reach of the web.

  • Clifford

    Sean, I am hoping you could clarify your remarks from the segment here, viz. How is it that batter has the lower entropy than the cake and analogously the seemingly randomness of ionized gas has lower entropy than our present solar system? Or perhaps Colbert provided a bad analogy in that one applies energy to the batter to increase order where maybe no additional energy is applied to our closed universe?

  • marc

    I’d love to watch the video, but it stops for about 30 seconds every 20 seconds or so, and there seems to be no way to download it first and then watch it….maybe in a few days.

  • buffalodavid

    My DVR came through and the show was waiting for me when I got home. I was a little surprised that he didn’t use “your” question. “Didn’t God Just do it?” I’m still waiting for you to do a walk on for “The Big Bang Theory”

  • Metre

    We can now bestow the title of “Celebrity Scientist” upon you.

  • Justin Beals

    Great work Dr. Carroll. Congrats on the spot and it’s good to see this form of science in the mainstream cultural discussion.

  • Leslie Haber

    I thought it went very well. The point you made with the wrong turn into yesterday was much better than the joke that followed it.

    I have read the book, and I thought you explained it quite well, given the time frame.

  • Tod R. Lauer

    Dear Sean,

    First rate job with what you were trying to get across, and you blended with Colbert perfectly. Not being able to remember the future, I tried to answer the questions in my mind, before your replies, and was impressed with your deftness in not stepping in it. The “Cake” question showed how sharp Colbert really is, and this might have been an easy place to go off the rails, but you nicely replied that total entropy was what was important (without using such technical language). Now on to Letterman…

  • Mandeep

    Sean- great going, you acquitted yourself quite finely there. one thing that impressed me is that Stephen is *clearly* confused and going WTF at several points, and Colbert is a *smart* cookie, so he gets the gist of things, most of the time, even with scientists i feel. so i found his reaction there to be rather rare. but because some of the things you explain *do* require more than just a couple of min for the layman to understand, there was no way he could get it all, so he just took what he could, made a coupla jokes, knowing he was clearly outclassed in the arena of understanding the Universe, and asked some good q’s. hope it gets you more books sold, and a few more hits here at CV, too!

  • Dave Koehler

    Well done, Sean! Not bad for someone who went through Pennsbury Schools. 😉

  • hackenkaus

    Sean, you have clearly put on weight since last I saw you. It’s starting to make you look a bit middle aged and jowely. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I know many people let themselves go after getting married, but if you really want to go Hollywood then you’ve got some work to do.

  • Julianne

    I had been covering the expansion of the Universe and the Big Bang in my ginormous intro class over the past week. Yesterday a student started to get all “second law of thermodynamics and entropy” on my ass, and I was able to say, “oh, just go watch the Colbert Report tonight.”

  • Charlie

    My education is now complete. I read the book, listened to the Audible audio book but now with the Colbert Report I finally get it 😉

    Nicely done.

  • poke

    It was a good interview. Colbert is usually so quick witted he has a tendency to talk over people but he spent a lot of time just staring at you digesting what you had said.

  • ed hessler

    Not a bad way to spend 5 minutes or so and I thank both of you, Mr. Colbert and you, Professor Carroll for being so quick witted. I’m amazed when he talks with scientists at how much attention he pays to the science, allowing some rays of light to be shed from a tangent. I laughed out loud when I heard “Wrong turn into yesterday.” I asked whether I had really heard that. A great moment. The formula was perfect: you were yourself and so was he.

    Cheers, but beware, if ever I see you again, I’ll have a filled pen and will ask for an autograph.

  • Steuard

    Clifford: I understood Sean’s point to be that while cake may have lower entropy than batter, the entropy of “cake plus a hot oven” is higher than “batter plus a cold oven”. More or less.

  • Tod R. Lauer

    WRT Cake: The problem is that the batter just doesn’t turn into cake. If we say baked the cake in a wood oven, one would have to visualize not only the batter, but the cord of wood needed to heat the oven, and indeed the air needed to oxidize the wood. Collect the ashes when you’re done, plus the hot air balloon filled with smoke from the oven (and everything else warmed by the stove). You can see that you had to make a big mess just to get the cake out of the batter.

  • Sean

    I didn’t do a great job with the cake question — again, it was a more sophisticated question than I was anticipating. I tried to say that you don’t just make cake, you make heat and light and so forth, as Tod says. Which is true, as far as it goes. But it brings up the more interesting question of how the evolution of the universe leads to complex and apparently-organized things — like living beings! — in the course of increasing in entropy. I could have taken advantage of the chance to talk about that, but wasn’t quick enough.

  • Ray Gedaly

    Don’t worry Sean … in a parallel universe, you did!

  • daniel

    You totally rocked! You definitely got the main point across: time is weird. And “Wrong turn into yesterday” is a genius soundbyte. You came across as knowledgeable and approachable; you’re going to mislead the world into thinking we’re all witty and well-dressed. Plus, Colbert got to make some jokes, and the chemistry was good. Hopefully this is just the first of many such appearances…enjoy that tequila! You’ve most certainly earned it.

  • Jennifer West

    SO ADORABLE!! Both of you, loved the interview….

  • John Preskill

    A star is born.

  • elizabeth

    Apparently Steven hasn’t made a cake lately. My kitchen goes from completely organized, everything clean and put away, to a complete wreck. Flour, sugar, and egg shells everywhere, dirty pans, bowls, and spoons, the additional miniwreck of the frosting, and of course the finished cake or cupcakes. The last time I made cake was when I turned 0x28 :)

    Great job on the show! I’m getting the book. Ya know the Colbert bump is a real thing!

  • Brian Mingus

    saw it, liked it.

  • Hirni

    I think Sean was excellent. He explained everything in his usual clear and concise way.

    One of the great things about the Colbert Report is that people get a glimpse into questions and their answers that they wouldn t have spent even a second thinking about.

  • Samuel A. (Sam) Cox

    Good job Sean!

    “Wrong turn into yesterday” is a great springboard for scientific discussion, and it was nice that, given the brief interview, you focused on that statement.

    How about “Right turn into yesterday”…death followed by our eternal re-appearance in the delivery room? The problem of course is that entropy related matters in a space-time universe prevent our remembering such “time travel”…everything would seem so fresh- and “new”…but then we wouldn’t want the life experience to be boring anyway!

  • Ian

    Just watched it on the DVR. Sean did a great job of keeping it simple for the casual TV viewer but intriguing enough I hope he’ll get some readers out of it. And leave it up to the masterful Stephen Colbert to make cosmology comical! Loved the way he wrapped it up by asking how he and Jon Stewart would stack up in the multiverse.

  • Matt Warren

    I really enjoyed this interview (saw it three times). Even my ten year old son “sorta” understood some of what you were saying, but that’s probably because I periodically pepper him with graphics about the big bang. Your descriptions, while admittedly crude, were very approachable.

    And you are correct, it would need to be a “Yes” album.

  • Craig

    You say that there may be more universes where Colbert has the better time slot. Are you talking about chaotic inflation or are you talking about hte many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics? Are they related somehow? The whole multiverse thing sounds really cool, but it would be cooler if the terminology was more clear. It would also be great if it was more firmly established.

  • Craig

    In response to Samual A. Cox. I don’t think eternal return really makes any sense. Basically that assumes that there is a Cartesian-ego. The self is like a narative center of gravity. You are a pattern that represents itself to itself and when you die the pattern will no longer exist. I recommend you read I am a Starng Loop by Hofstadter. Eternal return used to fascinate me, but its a mistake.

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  • blueshifter

    Just saw the interview, that was GREAT! Colbert went easy on you, he often completely ambushes and derails guests, he really let you explain yourself. I thought he would get confrontational (mock or not, it still shuts off the guests) about science not “having all the answers”, but he didn’t harp on it. And you were cool and collected throughout – great job! You give good mass media, doctor!

  • Samuel A. (Sam) Cox

    #45…Hi Craig,

    Eternal return is characteristic of a static universe and I don’t agree with that idea either.

    Observing the universe electromagnetically from the center of a marginally closed spherical geometry brings pi into play, since the (4D) particulate event horizon surfaces are on the circumference…the relationship between actual existence and the electromagneitic observervation of that existence relates to a mathematically irrational number.

    If the universe origiinated at a geometric point and extended to infinity, the irrationality of pi would be of no significance, however the Planck Realm exists below 10 to the minus 33rd cm or so…

    Therefore the universe, while it probably is eternal, cannot be completely static. We can see this projected four dimensionally in the existence of time and space, motion and change themselves, but also in phylogenic developent over cosmological time in organic evolution. A completely static universe is inconsistent with the universe we exist in, observe and measure.

    In a quasi-static universe EVERYTHING changes, but the way parts of said universe are observed to change varies widely, depending on how we observe them (SR/GR). The point is: not only does the individual develop ontongenically, and the species develop phylogenically, there is a further developmental process which (predictable, coordinated change) takes place in each individual over an eternity of almost imperceptable development.

    Space and time, motion and change…entropy are all so obvious to us! They are the universe we observe. It is difficult to conceive a universe where space and time are quantities which result from certain relationships between matter and energy…that the vastness of space and time, all the mass of the universe, all information and complexity could be contained in a black hole with hardly the radius of the solar system!

    I believe the relationships described in SR/GR are adequate hints that the universe is much more than we observe. The facts that relativity and Quantum Mechanics are rigidly deterministic and dualistic are also clues which must be seriously considered in cosmology.

    Frames of reference in the universe are almost invariant…not completely invariant…because of the nature of universal existence vs the way said existence is observed- to at least 33 places.

    I am inclined to believe quantum determinism melds very well with the manifold described by and observed in SR/GR.

    Last, but not least are the engineering constraints inherent in information and complexity….and the vital fact that in the sub-microscopic, the universe and everything in it is entangled.

    Best Wishes….

  • MartyM

    I love The Colbert Report but honestly I wish he would let his guests talk more. Seems they can’t get a complete idea out before he jumps in the middle of it. Yet, love his show and his book I Am America (and So Can You).

  • Craig

    What i am saying is that even if the universe did repeat itself exactly it still would make no sense to say ‘When I die I go back to being born again only all my memeories are lost.’ It makes no sense for the same reason that it makes no sense to wonder if you survive teleportation. The continuity of the singular self is maintained by illusion.

  • Paul Stankus

    Hi Sean —

    Overall I thought it was a great success! You almost certainly pulled in some people at the margin, from all walks of life, who might now be persuaded that deep questions about time are not just philosophical and undecidable, but can be investigated and discussed in a concrete and accessible way. The Colbert slot was a great opportunity, and you took excellent advantage of it.

    Now that you have more than a minute to think about it, I’d like to get your answer to a more exact form of SC’s question about the early Universe.

    Imagine an early thermal Universe, pretty similar to how we imagine our own, evolving over some stretch of time with the following specifications: (i) the cosmological constant is exactly zero, (ii) there are no primordial black holes, and none are created, and (iii) the chemical potentials for all massive particle species are vanishing, ie no net number of heavy particles. This seems like a perfectly reasonable situation, at least over a finite interval. The question is, during such a finite interval while this Universe is evolving, is its entropy increasing? It’s hard to see how, since the expansion of a well-thermalized universe should basically be reversible; ie start from a given macro state but switch the sign of the expansion and the contracting universe will go through pretty much the same set of macro states in reverse order. On the other hand, if entropy (suitably defined) is not increasing during an early thermalized phase then it’s hard to justify the statement that initial entropy is low. So how should one think about this?

    (I apologize if the answer is spelled out better in the new book, as I can’t afford to buy one and so haven’t read it yet — are you giving away courtesy copies to interested physicists?)

    Best regards,


  • Samuel A. (Sam) Cox

    Hi Craig,

    Interesting but (resorting to tautology), existence is existence; “The universe just is” (Hawking). We share the characteristics of the universe which, past, presently and will define our existence…we just are.

    The 4D projection of eternal existence is obvious…ourselves. You were yourself as a boy and you are yourself now…as you will also be yourself when you are older; but you have changed, and will change in the future.

    It is human to fear the unknown, but fearing the unknown is like fearing tomorrow…fearing growing older and the process of change which actually defines our lives and consciousness.

    I don’t believe that the fact we forget our previous existences and therefore cannot compare them with the one we are now experiencing has foundational importance. Cosmologically past “existence” is part of the record…personal fossils. If we had the technology we could “dig for them”, in fact by studying and observing carefully we can get clues as to what the cosmological past might have been like.

    We remember a part of the story of how we got to this place. We cannot remember the future, though that fact in no way discredits our knowledge that the future exists…it is out there. Historical records help extend our knowledge of the past but as these records become more ancient, they become less accurate.

    The cosmological models which work are deterministic and dual.

    When we observe the universe- and ourselves- we view eternity. What we see- including ourselves- has taken an eternity to develop into what we see today…Sean really got us thinking in 5 minutes! The book is just great…I’m about 3/4 finished.

    Best Wishes…

  • Martin

    Here’s an honest review:

    I watched it 4 times over the course of a few days now. I feel that it’s hard to beat your answers given the circumstances. They were absolutely great. The only thing I would say that affects a television audience was your non-verbal expressions in the beginning. When Colbert says “hit me hit me” you sort of get taken aback, which doesn’t look comfortable and it made me feel uncomfortable too. This might be a strong statement, but you may have gotten into taking his idiot character on too serious a level.

    One of the commenters got it right when they said that Colbert usually outwits his guests, but here he was sitting in wonder at your explanations (especially the cake question). You made him so engaged in your response that he forgot to be a comedian host, and I think that “takes the cake.”

    Also, kudos for the very witty response at the end where you mention that Colbert coming before Stewart may happen more often in the multiverses.

    Overall, a very good interview! I hope they invite you back/you go on more shows/some producer tries to get you to do a regular TV show. I think you would make an extremely successful TV science popularizer personality.

  • Sean

    Paul– The book does discuss that in some detail. The short version is that structure formation — gravitational collapse — is not reversible. Think of the life cycle of a star, it’s certainly not a reversible process. So yes, entropy would go up.

  • Alan

    I watched your interview and your lecture over at and really enjoyed them both. I never really took an interest in physics before but that has all changed now, I look forward to reading your book. Keep up the good work!

  • Rohan Mehra

    Is anyone trying to watch this outside the US?
    It keeps saying I can’t view it because of the country I’m in (England).

    Does anyone know of an alternate location or working proxy workaround?

  • Neal J. King

    #27, Rohan Mehra:

    I can get the Colbert Report from Munich, Germany:

    Let me know if this works.

  • Martin

    I can watch this clip fine in France, but not when I try to go to colbertnation to watch full episodes.

  • Jennifer Ouellette

    Most people missed the sequence when Colbert is moving from his desk to join Sean at the interview table. Colbert and his crew taped that sequence with Colbert moving backward — which is why he moves down the stairs so awkwardly — and then played it backward to make it seem as if he was moving forward. He catches his cue cards out of thin air. That’s the only giveaway. Sadly, it’s just a tad too subtle. :)

  • Paul Stankus

    Hi Sean, replying at #55 —

    Thanks very much for the quick reply. However, there’s still something I’m missing here following your remark on structure formation through gravitational collapse:

    1) In my question at #52 I specified zero chemical potentials for heavy (ie non-massless) particles, so there would be no net density/number of non-relativistic particles. If this were the case, then would structures still form? Could one really have a galaxy that’s half matter and half antimatter? I suppose one could postulate an arbitrarily low annihilation cross section — could that describe dark matter? — but that seems like a funny condition for an increase in entropy to hinge on.

    2) Even if there is a small net density for some heavy, stable species, such as baryons in our own Universe, there is some finite early period when the temperature is high enough that all those heavy particles are relativistic and so will not collapse gravitationally. That probably describes our own Universe, for example, from the end of the inflation up through the QGP/hadron transition — which is quite a long time in a logarithmic sense. So, was there any gravitational structure formation in our Universe before the QGP/hadron transition? If not, then how was entropy increasing during that period?

    Meanwhile I’ll try to save lunch money for the book…

  • Paul Stankus

    Oh, and one more thing:

    3) It’s not completely obvious to me that structure formation is not reversible, at least in the case that no black holes are formed. If we were to take a Universe similar to the present-day and flip the sign of the expansion (“Don’t make me turn this cosmos around!”), then the photon gas would increase in temperature and eventually drive all particles back to being relativistic and hence unbound, ie galaxies and stars would all boil away. Once we’re past the hadron/QGP transition on he way back up, nothing is gravitationally bound after that, correct? And so we get back to essentially the same macro state we started with, ie a hot relativistic gas filling the Universe; to first order this looks like a reversal to me.

    Thanks for the clarifications,


  • Martin

    Jennifer!!! I did notice he caught his cue cards out of thin air. I replayed that twice, but I couldn’t explain it. I thought that was INCREDIBLY odd, but since I wasn’t clever enough to imagine it was being played backwards (since maybe there seemed no reason to), I didn’t give it too much thought.

    But I did pick it up, and I’m so glad it’s been explained!

  • Bill Rockenbeck

    I love how you’re trying so hard not to say “entropy”. “Maybe it’s possible to explain the low… the low… organization of our universe”.

  • Paul Stankus

    Ah, well, it seems that the caravan has moved on. And here I was still hoping to cadge a free book….

    Anyway, congratulations again, Sean. Coming across well on national television and usefully promoting some subtle science is well more than most of us could probably do.

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  • Carol Palmer

    Great job, Sean! I am a BIG fan of yours after watching your Teaching Company lectures on Dark Matter/Dark Energy. Can cosmologists have groupies? :)

  • Sean

    Groupies are perfectly acceptable. As long as they buy the book!

  • Steve Ulven

    Very cool! I was sent here from Phil Plait and loved the interview. This is a fascinating question and I will be picking up your book ASAP.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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