PhD Comics Explains the Higgs Boson

By Sean Carroll | April 26, 2012 8:06 am

Jorge Cham visits CERN, and comes back with tales of particles and mass.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Higgs, Humor, Science
  • Dan Schroeder

    In the chemists’ periodic table, particles with similar properties are in the same column with masses increasing downward. Why do particle physicists usually draw their periodic table transposed, so particles with similar properties are in the same row, with masses increasing to the right?

  • Joseph Smidt

    Hey, I think Daniel Whiteson of UC Irvine (my current institution baby!) should be getting a big shout out here since he is the physicist explaining what is happening in the video. Just sayin..

  • JaredPar

    Absolutely loved that comic strip.

    I had one question about it though. In the discussion about mass it says that you can’t have negative mass or repulsive gravity.

    I was curious if this is something that is known to be true? If negative mass did exist would it be a huge violation of existing theory?

    Or is it something that is just expected to be true but could exist without being a violation of existing theory?

  • Chris

    @2 JaredPar

    The properties of negative mass matter have been hypothesized. That’s how they’d like to build wormholes or construct time machines. However those thinking about negative mass are mainly those working in relativity. I don’t know how serious it’s looked at in the particle physics community, but other than the possible opposite gravitational response of antimatter I haven’t seen any work looking for negative mass particles.

  • April Brown

    I’m not sure how much work it took to put together that animated comic, but wow what an nice format for a science e-textbook. I think if I’d had something like that in high school or even earlier to explain things, I might not have had such a problem with some areas of math and chemistry.

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  • Some Dude

    That was a really interesting and well explained little video. By far the best explanation of the Higgs and the search for it I have seen yet.

  • Phil h

    Great video but I was also confused by the impossibility of negative gravity. Alan Guth usually describes inflation as ‘Turning gravity on its head” so it becomes a repulsive force. Have I misunderstood Guth? Has the video got it wrong ? Can you help?

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  • fossil

    Personally I think WIMPs are far more repulsive than gravity.

    At least we know which one is truly fictitious.

  • Chris

    I did notice what seemed to be an error, or at least wasn’t expressed clearly. He said that the particles are slowed down by interaction with this field (4:20 mark), which isn’t right since as Newton said every body in motion stays in motion. Really the Higgs field causes a resistance to change in momentum.

  • Mark


    This video is for a lay audience. You trade accuracy and precision for simpler words and concepts.

  • Chris

    @12 Mark
    This is called PhD comics, so the audience is a little more educated than the average lay person. I wouldn’t have mentioned it if this had been presented in Garfield.

  • Merle

    THANKS! It finally makes sense and is much more interesting than Garfield.

  • Rhys

    I agree with Chris: the molasses analogy is awful. I think it is actually worse than just saying “interactions with the Higgs field give particles mass”.

    Let me also say something about “negative gravity” and inflation, as that hasn’t been answered:
    Newton’s law of gravitation says that any two massive bodies will accelerate towards each other, with an acceleration proportional to the product of their masses, and inversely proportional to the square of their separation. In an inflating spacetime, there is an extra term in the acceleration which instead pushes the two bodies apart. It is proportional to their separation, but *independent of the mass*, which means it is better interpreted as space expanding at a constant rate, rather than a ‘negative gravitational force’ between the bodies.

  • socratus

    The mad CERN ’s project.
    === .
    In 1906, Rutherford studied internal structure of atoms,
    bombarding them with high energy a- particles.
    This idea helped him understand the structure of atom.
    But the clever Devil interfered and gave advice to physicists
    to enlarge the target. Bomb them!
    And physicist created huge cannon-accelerators of particles.
    And they began to bomb micro particles in the vacuum, in hoping
    to understand their inner structure. And they were surprised with
    the results of this bombing. Several hundreds of completely new
    strange particles appeared. They lived a very little time and do not
    relate to our world. Our Earth needs its real constants of nature.
    But this was forgotten.
    What God carefully created, is destroyed in accelerators.
    And they are proud of that. They say: we study the inner structure
    of the particles. The clever and artful Devil is glad. He again has deceived man.
    Physicist think, that an accelerator – is first of all the presence of huge energy.
    And the Devil laughs. He knows, that an accelerator – first of all is Vacuum.
    But this, he has withheld from man.
    He has not explained that the Vacuum is infinite and inexhaustible.
    And in infinity there is contained an infinite variety of particles.
    And by bombing the vacuum, one can find centaurs and sphinxes.
    But my God, save us from their presence on Earth.
    ========= .. ========.
    Rutherford was right.
    His followers are mistaken.
    Imagine, that I want to plant a small apple- tree.
    For this purpose I shall dig out a hole of 1 meter width and 1,20 m depth.
    It is normal.
    But if to plant a small apple- tree, I shall begin to dig
    a base for a huge building (skyscraper),
    or if to begin drill ground with 10 km. depth,
    will you call me a normal man?
    ========== .. ===============.
    Imagine a man who breaks watches on the wall.
    And then he tries to understand the mechanism of the watches
    by thrown cogwheels, springs and small screws.
    Does he have many chances to succeed?
    As many as the scientists have who aspire to understand
    the inner structure of electron by breaking them into accelerators.
    If not take into account the initial conditions of Genesis,
    the fantasies of the scientists may be unlimited.
    ========== . ======== .
    The Nature works very economical.
    For example, biologists know 100 ( hundred ) kinds of
    amino acids. But only 20 ( twenty) kinds of amino acids
    are suitable to produce molecules of protein, from which all
    different cells created on our planet. What are about another
    80 % of amino acids? They are dead end of evolution.
    The physicists found many ( 1000 ) new elementary particles in
    accelerators. But we need only one ( 1) electron and one (1 )
    proton to create first atom, to begin to create the Nature.
    All another elementary particles (mesons, muons , bosons, taus,
    all their girlfriends – antiparticles, all quarks and antiquarks…etc)
    are dead end of evolution.
    What was before – “ the big bang” or the vacuum ?
    The physicists created “ Europe’s Large Hadron Colider “
    Please, look at how our physicists made this accelerator.
    They made the vacuum and after they generated a big reaction
    between two colliding particles in some small imitation of the
    “big bang”. They didn’t make this process in the reverse.
    So, what was prior in the Universe: “ big bang” or vacuum?
    The Universe as a whole is Vacuum, first of all.
    === .
    Best wishes.
    Israel Sadovnik Socratus.

  • Chris

    Actually we were talking about a better analogy for the Higgs and think a runner with velcro on the soles of the shoes is a little better. A massless particle would have no velcro and could run unencumbered. As the mass increases, the amount of velcro increases. Very massive particles need more force to get them going. OK, maybe not perfect, but I think it better illustrates the resistance to change in momentum and doesn’t make it appear the particles slow down on their own.

  • Alex

    Chris – I found both your new analogy helpful and the original from the video. In both instances, it is another “substance” restricting the action of the particles.

    This really is “crazy” stuff to think about. I’m excited to see what we get from these experiments!

  • DennisSilverman

    There is a mechanism by which gravity can be reduced, which might be called adding negative gravity. Gravity really couples to the total energy of a particle. In an atom, gravity couples to the energy of the atom, which is not just the sum of the masses of the nucleus and the electrons, but is reduced by the electromagnetic binding energy. Hence if electromagnetism is attractive in a system, it acts as a contribution of negative gravity. Similarly with nuclei binding to form a nucleus, then the strong interactions act like a negative gravity contribution.


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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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