The Particle At the End of the Universe

By Sean Carroll | April 24, 2012 3:47 pm

Update: here’s the amazon page, where the book is ready for pre-order.

Speaking of writing popular books, I’m at it again. I’m currently hard at work writing The Particle At the End of the Universe, a popular-level book on the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. If all goes well, it should appear in bookstores at the end of this year or beginning of next. (Ideally, it will go on sale the same day they announce the discovery of the Higgs. I’m trying to bribe the right people to make that happen.) The title is somewhat tentative, so it might change at some point.

This will be a somewhat different book than From Eternity to Here. While both are aimed at a general audience, FETH was a rather lengthy tome that made a careful argument in a hopefully novel way. Anyone could read it, but to get the most out of it you have to really sit and think about certain ideas. Particle, on the other hand, aims to be a fun and narratively gripping page-turner — a book that makes you eager to move quickly to the next chapter, rather than taking a few minutes to let the last one sink into your head. A bodice-ripper, if you will. It will be full of stories and fun anecdotes about the human beings who made the LHC happen and have devoted their lives to searching for the Higgs and particles beyond the Standard Model. A book you would be happy to give to your Grandmom in order to convey some of the excitement of modern physics. (Unless your Grandmom is a particle physicist, in which case she might think it’s at too low a level.)

At the same time, of course, I’m going to try to illuminate the central ideas of the Standard Model in as clear a fashion as I can manage. It won’t just be a list of particles; I’ll cover field theory, gauge bosons, and spontaneous symmetry breaking. All in fine bodice-ripping style. (Maybe get Fabio for the cover?)

If you are a particle physicist yourself, I’m happy to take input. This could take the form of a favorite analogy you like to use to explain some subtle concept, or some physics idea or piece of history you think really doesn’t get the attention it deserves in the popular media. Even better if you have some personal involvement in a fun story — you lost your virginity in the LHC tunnel, or you discovered asymptotic freedom but didn’t get around to publishing it. I’m talking to as many physicists as I can, but I can’t talk to everyone. I’m looking for tales that will make the human side of physics come alive.

Also happy to take input if you’re not a particle physicist! What are the concepts that we don’t do a good job explaining? What are the buzzwords you’ve heard about the don’t make sense? The questions you really want answered?

I sincerely believe the search for the Higgs and whatever might lie beyond is a Big Deal in the history of science, and I hope to convey some of the importance and excitement of this question to as large an audience as possible. I’ll be flitting around the country giving talks when the book comes out, so let me know if you have a big lecture hall full of eager minds that want to hear the latest dispatches from the particle trenches. Should be a fun ride.

  • Barry Kort

    This is perhaps a bit off the central topic, but it does belong to the field of particle physics, more or less.

    I’ve never found a decent explanation of quantum entanglement. All the explanations I’ve looked at are so nonsensical that I now believe there is no such thing as “spooky action at a distance.” Rather (as I see it), there is instantaneous local inference about the state of the other twin as soon as you take a local measurement of the first twin.

    Perhaps you can do justice to the concept of quantum entanglement.

  • joe

    In what way is the Higgs boson the “particle at the end of the universe”? That name is going to cause as much confusion and controversy as the “God Particle”. I think Leon Lederman wishes he could take back that misnomer; you might end up feeling the same way.

    • Sean Carroll

      In the same way that the Second Foundation was at the other end of the galaxy.

  • Chris

    you lost your virginity in the LHC tunnel,
    The real reason for the magnet quench incident of 2008.

  • Sally

    Sean, the night I discovered the asymptotic freedom in QCD, I lost my virginity in the LHC tunnel. Email me if you want to find out about the details. XOXOXOX

  • http://@paul_kramarchyk paul kramarchyk

    Is space quantized? That is, does space come in discrete lumps or is it continuous. If I release a ball (or particle) in a gravitational field does it occupy an infinite number of positions (continuous) on its free fall path? Or does it occupy only a limited number of positions (quantized), albeit many zillions but still limited?

    For me, space is as interesting as particles. Where space is defined as an accessible position. A place where something “could be” even if it’s vacant at time=now.

  • V H Satheeshkumar

    “… you lost your virginity in the LHC tunnel…” Good one 😉

  • mark

    the title is fine. it has a nice ring to it and doesn’t involve religion. thank god. lol

  • Flapple

    Two thing I never quite understand when reading about these things:

    1. Spin. I kind of understand that particles don’t actually have spin (I think) that is a kind of a metaphor, but for what?

    2. How do we get from atomic particles to leptons etc. I understand electrons, protons etc, and even sort of get quarks, but the leap to leptons, gluons etc and the whole table of funny particles seems too fast. I would like to see a slow journey to get all that to make sense.

  • Zach

    It would be nice to have better explanations on exactly how the Higgs field explains mass, and the relationship between particles and fields.

  • Chris

    Spin is always going to be tough to describe since it doesn’t have anything comparable to our real world experience. And of course the usual spinning planet analogy is completely wrong. It’s human nature to use metaphors and similes. Mathematically spin is easy to understand, but try and draw a picture and you’re out of luck.

    One way I’ve described (this is a chemistry class) spin 1/2 particles is by thinking of a mobius strip. You need to rotate 720 degrees to return to the original wavefunction. Then I showed how it naturally falls out of the Dirac equation with matrices, although that did partially blow their mind.

  • Julien

    “The final particle.”

  • Bob F.

    In “Eternity”, I liked your analogy of the bowl-shape in explaining false vacuums and how the Higgs field comes to rest at a nonzero state. What always confuses my small brain is the mechanics of inflation and the inflaton field. I have trouble understanding what causes gravity to snap back and forth between positive and negative pressure. This is my fault and not yours, because I’ve read it several times and have Guth’s original book.

    BTW, it would be great if you gave a lecture at Princeton or IAS. (I have zero influence at both places.)

  • Lee Gomes

    This is a totally lay question. I have never heard explained, but always wanted to know, how much energy, in real world terms, is released when particles in the LHC are colliding. What I mean is, suppose the collisions were happening right in front of you above the dining room table, instead of in the LHC. (I understand that’s impossible, and that the magnets, etc., of the LHC are needed to accelerate the particles in the first place, but indulge me.) What would it be like? Would I even see anything? Would there be a tiny spark? Would the explosion leave everyone at the table with soot on their face, like in the Three Stooges? I remember the great Richard Rhodes book “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” having a line to the effect that the energy released by splitting a single uranium atom was enough to cause a grain of sand to jump a few inches into the air. I’m looking for an explanation along those lines. Many thanks! And thanks for an awesome blog!

  • Aaron

    Chris: I think describing spin as “not having anything comparable to our real world experience” is rather misleading. In the density matrix picture all the irreducible representations are perfectly respectable integer indexed ones, corresponding directly to transforming as spherical harmonics. It’s true that this fails to capture global phase information for interference effects, but it has the nice benefit of handling mixed states naturally. For example, the mixed portion of an electron spin transforms as spin-0 — if you don’t know what direction it’s pointing, rotating must have no effect on your predictions. Conversely, the pure portion really is spin-1, a vector pointing in some definite direction.

  • Chris

    @15 Aaron
    In the density matrix picture all the irreducible representations are perfectly respectable integer indexed ones, corresponding directly to transforming as spherical harmonics.

    Maybe that’s your real world experience but since Sean’s book is aimed at a general audience, I’m pretty sure that would zoom over the head of the average reader.

  • Mike F

    On behalf of humanity, I commend Lee Gomes for the excellent question!

  • DMcK

    Lisa Randall just published a very similar book. “Knocking at Heaven’s Door”. The more the merrier as far as I’m concerned, and you must know of this other book, so I would think you’d need to wait for the Higgs to show up to make it newer and different.

  • Aaron

    Chris: The language I used was certainly abstruse, but the picture itself doesn’t seem that bad. Electron spins, contrary to common dogma, in most respects really do act like pointers in a definite direction.

  • steve

    I think it is difficult to convey to non-physicists (like myself) the full impact that the identification of the Higgs boson will have on our understanding of how the cosmos works – what will completing the standard model and validating our current understanding of how things possess mass mean going forward.
    Also, does the continuing lack of evidence for supersymmetry (if that is indeed the case) (from LHC?) threaten superstring theory – are string theory advocates getting nervous?
    Lee’s comment above is also one I’d love to read about.
    Very much enjoyed FETH – it helped me to ask new questions about the nature of time – and I’m looking forward to finding out about The Particle At The End Of The Universe – especially if we get to learn something about the one at the beginning as well. Not to mention what particle physicists do in the Large Hadron Collider tunnel in their spare time (no doubt it was mispelt at the entrance and they got the wrong message).

  •!/mark.mighell Mark Mighell

    If we look far enough into the distance we could see
    The Singularity at the end of the universe.

  • Bee

    Sean: You might find this headline development interesting. Also, if you’re mentioning the black holes @ LHC story, there’s lots on this on my blog.

  • Bee

    Lee Gomes, Mike F: Read this, maybe it helps. The energy that the LHC works with is absolutely tiny in macroscopic terms. The difficult thing is to focus it enough. As to the question what you would see… well, check Wikipedia on Anatoli Burgorski ;o)

  • Lab Lemming

    I like the title.

  • Andy Jewell

    I thoroughly enjoyed both you teaching company lectures and From Eternity to Here (I’ll admit that I have only glanced at your General Relativity textbook) and I eagerly await the new book.

    Here’s what I want to understand after reading the new book – the weak and strong forces; specifically, how (and if) they behave as forces in the sense that gravity and electromagnetism do.

    Gravitational force – masses pull on each other with a force of Gmm/r^2
    Electromagnetic force – charges push or pull each other with a force of kqq/r^2

    The weak force is never talked about in terms of pushing and pulling but only in “being responsible for radioactive decay”. Is it, in fact, a force that pushes and/or pulls? Is there some sort of algebraic equation that describes this force in terms of amounts of “weak stuff” and their separation.

    The strong force increases with distance, and holds quarks together; so in that regard seems like a force in the normal sense. But still, one never sees an equation with force on the one side and “strong stuff” and distance on the other.

  • Chris

    @14. Lee Gomes
    If the collision were to happen right in front of you, you’d probably see nothing. Most of the radiation is given off in gamma rays which is too high of an energy to actually see. And any particles lasting long enough to fly off you couldn’t see anyway. Now you might see a little burst of light similar to what the astronauts see when a cosmic ray passes through their eyeballs. This is usually Cherenkov radiation. A particle traveling faster than light in a medium, in your case water. This is what causes the blue glow when radioactive waste is stored in water.

  • James

    The modern viewpoint of the Higgs mechanism would be interesting. ie whether or not gauge symmetry is *really* broken (since neither is it a proper symmetry, nor can we actually lose gauge freedom, unless we properly account for the degrees of freedom).

  • Chris

    I have to know. Is the book title inspired by the book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy, “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe”?

  • Phillip Helbig

    How, exactly, does the Higgs provide mass. Where does the Higgs get its mass?

    Spin is what it seems, at least to some extent:

  • Gizelle Janine

    Looking forward to it, for sure.

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  • marcel

    Bee links to a post on her own blog that I thought (hoped?) contained a bodice-ripping description of the type of virginity losing event that Sean alluded to in the post. Boy, was I ever disappointed!

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  • Igor Khavkine

    Sean, how do you see your book compare with Veltman’s Facts and Mysteries in Elementary Particle Physics (which I think is excellent by the way) in terms of content?

  • Mark Weitzman

    I think you should discuss Dyson’s argument on why it may be impossible to ever detect a graviton because the detectors would have to be so large as to form a black hole.

  • Filip

    What is the relationship of the Higgs boson with bosons as the force carriers? I.E., if bosons are particles that carry force, and Higgs is not a particle related to any force, then why it is a boson? What did I understand wrong?
    Thanks in advance.

  • James

    @ Filip:

    In answer to your question, you’ve got it the wrong way round: rather than “bosons are particles that carry force”, it’s “force carriers are bosons”. The electromagnetic, strong and weak interactions are mediated by particles called “vector bosons”. The Higgs is a “scalar boson” (vectors have one unit of spin; scalars have no spin).

  • Filip

    Now it’s clear. Thanks James.

  • Austerity

    Spontaneous symmetry breaking is something I don’t really understand at all. Not even well enough to ask a good question. It is something like a pencil standing on its tip, or a ball on a hill or in a donut shaped well or, well, something; I have no idea. What symmetry is being broken? What breaks it, etc? I take it this will be important in describing the Higgs but I hope you devote some extra ink to that topic so I can finally understand it.

  • Ray Gedaly

    As a layperson, I would be interested in having the following concepts addressed:
    Is the Higgs field responsible for all mass in the universe; or restated, would there be no mass at all in the universe without the Higgs? By imparting mass to particles, is the Higgs field ultimately responsible for the geometry of spacetime; or again restated, without the Higgs to impart mass, would spacetime geometry be Euclidean? Address the concepts of “rest” mass and mass-energy equivalency with respect to the Higgs field. Without the Higgs, would particles gain mass as they accelerate to the speed of light? I’ve heard it figuratively stated that a massless photon traveling at the speed of light does not experience time; or restated, from the photon’s perspective, no time passes as it travels across the universe at light-speed and thus it will have existed everywhere in its journey at once. Does this imply that without the Higgs field, time itself would not exist, since all particles would be massless and free to accelerate to light speed, moving through the universe with no sense of a passage of time?

  • Ray Gedaly

    From my questions, you can possibly see some basic misconceptions about the Higgs floating about that you can help to address/correct/explain/clarify. Thanks!

  • Phillip Helbig

    How does the exchange of particles actually explain the conventional idea of a force, i.e. attraction and repulsion? Is the weak force even a force in this sense?

  • Phillip Helbig
  • PeterC

    First describe what constitutes a ‘particle’ for the layperson. They may have heard of the double slit experiment and wave / particle duality- and accept that conundrum when applied to photons or electrons. But what about particles of matter they can see down a microscope? I have yet to read a detailed dissection of the double slit experiment applied to what the lay person would regard as solid material made of ‘solid’ particles – C60 and diamond. So a detailed run down of Aspect’s and Zeilinger’s work would be valuable. Zeilingers book dodges the task, so do Cox and Forshaw.

  • Cormac

    My students hate anecdotes. GET BACK TO THE STORY they keep saying. Worth bearing in mind…

  • Thomas Larsson

    As a prequel to this book, you might be interested in The hitchhiker’s guide to particle physics and string theory.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I doubt the subject hasn’t been explained “well” to a lay audience. Rather, I suspect it’s very difficult to explain to a lay audience better without high-level mathematics.

    But I’ll put it out there, nonetheless: An explication of the role of gauge invariance and the Lie groups at the heart of the Standard Model. Is there any way to intuitively grasp the nature of these symmetries as they relate to the forces the SM describes? I’ve never felt like I could. I sort of get the idea that spatial rotations don’t change certain laws, yadda yadda, but there are many kinds of “local transformations”.

    This is the real meat of particle theory, it seems, what really makes it remarkable. It’s these symmetries that confer beauty, and it’s arguably this kind of beauty most theorists search for as they attempt to go beyond the SM. And for all that I’ve read about it, I’m convinced that I don’t really understand it at all. Maybe I never will, but I’m always open to new takes on that subject.

  • Warrick

    I think one of the bigger helpers I’ve had in understanding the Higgs field is that slowing a particle down is the same as granting mass because of the relativistic invariant m²=E²/c²-p²c². That is, suppose you have a particle that moves at the speed of light. It is necessarily massless because of the contraction of its four-momentum. As soon as anything slows it down, that particle has mass. So the Higgs field doesn’t “give” particles mass, it just slows them down. I feel like that’s easier to understand than saying the interaction itself is directly responsible for mass. I think some people would say this is a semantic issue but it helped me a bit.

    Maybe I’m just proving why I don’t write books on particle physics myself…

  • Tara Li

    The big problem I’ve always had is – what’s up with this bit about the vacuum not actually being a vacuum at all – and what happens if you take the stuff that makes up the vacuum out? I know they keep saying you can’t do that – but … then you run into them talking about “false vacuums” and “dirac seas” where “holes act like particles”, and at some point, you have to wonder about Michelson-Morley experiments and the difference between this sea of negative particles and the aether – the difference is kinda sketchy!

  • Blobulon

    Sounds like a great book, I can’t wait to buy it.

    Since you asked for input, here is one of my great wants:
    An explanation of quantum entanglement and waveform collapse in such a fashion that I have some slam-dunk material to use next time my annoying new age friends and family start trying to talk about energy fields healing them, and their thoughts directly influencing the cosmos. Ugh!
    Even if this does not go in your book, please do a blog post.

    Or if a fellow reader knows of somewhere something like this already exists, please post a link.
    Thank you!

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  • Jimbo

    It all depends upon the precise Inflaton mass (unknown), but the nearest natural scale is,
    Mh = 2pi*alpha^8*Mp = 122.8 Gev, just ~ 2 Gev below the preliminary indication.
    We shall see !

  • Leoncefalo

    This is my first visit to your site and I am fascinated by the amount of particle physics I read here. I have read Leon Lederman’s book “The God Particle” and I think I grasp the concepts behind Peter Higgs and his search for the elusive boson that imparts mass to other particles.

    As an adherent to Francis Collins’ principles of theistic belief in the midst of scientific truth,
    I am not antagonistic to science, but much in accord with its requirements of evidentiary testimony that explain the natural world. Inasmuch as many scientists had hedged their bets in the 1920’s on George LeMaitre’s theory of the Big Bang because of his Catholic priesthood, it was necessary for me to know that he had based his research directly on Einsteins field equations to arrive at his concept of the primeval atom.

    The reason is abundantly clear in both scientific and religious disciplines – that man should find signifcant meaning to his existence both in the natural and spiritual worlds. But it does not help to have a Nobel Laureate in particle physics announce to the world that he finds the universe “meaningless.”It is only by cooperation in the most cosmic sense of the word, that we can mitigate the hostility that has been generated by the current crop of atheists who themselves are not scientists and have no connections to the scientific world. There is evil apparent in all human endeavor, and we need to seek the paradise together that demonstrates our own human capacities to achieve this ideal world.


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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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