Music Was Better in the Sixties, Man

By Sean Carroll | July 28, 2012 10:45 am

Actually, popular music is arguably “better” today. But in the Sixties it was more creative — or at least more experimental. So says science. (Via Kevin Drum.)

The science under consideration was carried out by a group of Spanish scientists led by Joan Serrà, and appeared in Scientific Reports, an open-access journal published by Nature. They looked at something called the Million Song Dataset, which is pretty amazing in its own right. The MSD collects data from over a million songs recorded since 1955, including tempo and volume and some information about the pitches of the actual notes (seems unclear to me exactly how detailed this data is).

And the answer is … popular music is in many ways unchanged over the years. The basic frequencies of different notes and so forth haven’t changed that much. But in certain crucial ways they have: in particular, they’ve become more homogeneous. This chart shows “timbral variety” over the years — a way of measuring how diverse the different kinds of sounds appearing in songs are. Nobody should really be surprised that the late 1960’s was the peak of different kinds of instrumentation being used in pop music. On the other hand, one could I suppose argue that this is because back then we didn’t know how to do it right, and there was a lot of experimental crap, whereas we’ve now figured it out. I suppose.

On the other hand, songs have gotten louder! So you get more volume for your money.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Music, Science, Top Posts
  • TomC

    I’m sure plenty of people have already pointed this out in other venues, but this choice of metrics is appropriate for certain styles of music and wildly inappropriate for others. In particular, the biggest innovation in Western popular music in the last 30 years—hip hop—is going to be severely undervalued (at least in terms of variety) by this system. I’d be interested to see what a similar set of plots looked like for rhythm and lyrical content.

  • Andy J

    On your last point, this might be of interest:

  • Dennis

    We’ve now figured out the “formula” to cater to the lowest common denominator, in order to make the most money.
    This does not make for better music – it makes for, as noted, homogenized music that all sounds the same.
    Variety and experimentation are good.
    Not only was there a greater variety of music in the mid ’60s to late ’70s, there was a greater variety of better, more interesting music.

    If, in the ’60s, there was a rainbow of flavors of ice-cream to choose from, but now one had to search high and low to find anything besides vanilla, because it’s easier and cheaper to produce, would that mean that vanilla is a better flavor than any of those choices in the ’60s?

  • Puff the Mutant Dragon

    Worthless generalizations. There are plenty of artists out there making some awesome stuff. This proves nothing, because you can’t judge the quality of music based on the “timbral variety” — that’s a nonsense way to judge.

    You need to lighten up, man :)

  • jerry

    this is dumb. there is a ton of experimental music out there. you just need look a little harder.

  • Davis

    Two responses to people who bemoan the loss of all that great 60’s music:

    (1) If you can’t find anything experimental from today’s music, you’re simply not looking. It’s easy to find.

    (2) I’ve listened to a lot of 60’s music, and anyone who believes that era didn’t exhibit the same cynical tendencies to “cater to the lowest common denominator” has a selective memory. I’ve listened to The Archies, Herman’s Hermits, The Monkees, and a whole slew of other artists who were blatant attempts to co-opt the popularity of other artists (or in the case of The Archies, comic book characters). The only thing new about today’s manufactured pop sensations is that we now have the technology to “fix” the inability to sing on key.

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  • Samantha

    Davis said: “The only thing new about today’s manufactured pop sensations is that we now have the technology to “fix” the inability to sing on key.”

    I think that’s not quite true. With all the pressure on the music industry a lot has changed. Big-time pop stars today have three or four composers put together their hits. Every hit artist is carefully groomed to maximize revenue and earning potential. Because there are competing distribution arenas, record labels are trying to make each hit count as much as they, whereas back in the 60s there was a great emphasis on exploration and less on commercialization

  • Valatan

    @Samantha #9: The singer-songwriter was a late ’60s innovation. It used to be somewhat rare. Elvis didn’t write “Blue Suede Shoes”, which was close to his signature song. Same with Aretha Franklin’s signature songs, “r e s p e c t” and “(You make me feel like a ) natural woman” which were written by Otis Redding and Carole King. Kris Kristoffersen wrote “Me and Bobby McGee” There are large numbers of other examples

    One major difference was that there was a time where record studios were run by people like Ahmet Ergodan and Sam Phillips, who actually cared about music. Now, the major studios are owned by huge media conglomerates like Sony and Time-Warner. Great, innovative musicians are totally still out there, they are just recording with independent labels who will work with them, and not try and push whatever stupid, superficial commericial thing is happening now. You just have to look beyond what is on your radio. And even there, if you’re willing to listen, there is plenty of talent out there. Really listen to Amy Winehouse or Joss Stone and tell me that they couldn’t have held their own against Motown back in the ’60s.

  • Pj

    Dumb and uninformed conclusions. What has changed, thankfully, is the dominant form of composition being based on rhythm, both in the instrumentation of the music and the melody / (or non-melody) of the singers voice. In the 60’s , we were coming off the heals of very complicated classical movements being the preferred and authoratative form of composition in pop culture. Now we have the past 50 years of musical history where the rhythmic compositions of Jazz, blues, rock etc. have evolved and shaped what music is today, based on rhythm not melodic movement. I personally am glad that I don’t have to hear a gigantic wall of complicated impossible to predict trebly harsh ear fluff which was incorrectly recorded by audio engineers who had no clue how to capture and manipulate audio frequencies and mix them together to create something that doesn’t give you high frequency hearing loss like the old days. (Now you get low frequency hearing loss).

  • Sean is a genius

    >> popular music is arguably “better” today
    Justin Bieber is definitely better than The Beatles, no doubt about that.

  • Roman

    “You need to lighten up, man”
    Actually, everybody needs to lighten up here. Sean and his co-bloggers will throw in something like this from time to time, which is great – too much Higgs or other electrons can be unhealthy.
    Interesting question is “is there any kind of metric that can give some kind of objective grading of music through the years?”
    I remember that David Bowe and Elvis Costello sounded “dissonant” to me and thus unpleasant. Yet they were big stars so to a lot of people they sounded just right. Was something physical going on that can be used as a metric we looking for?

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  • Brett

    CRAP! I went to go get this and lost what I typed like a doofus….anyway, here it is again…

    A lot of things have changed over the years. It used to be popular to be the loner. Now the exact opposite is true. Sean’s right though, there wasn’t any sort of understanding of compression, frequency equalization, or phase orientation back in the day; no understanding of how humans perceived audio. We also know exactly what sells these days. When I got out of college in 2008, I went to work for this music studio in Atlanta and worked for a company that produced: Usher, Katy Perry, Kesha, Lady Gaga, Flo Rida, Justin Bieber and a bunch of other pop music that I’m really into; in fact, I hate it. I started out working for them as an audio engineer, but started writing music for them after we smoked a dubbie one night, got a little drunk, and I started playing songs while narrating my eventful life. As I would write these songs that were more like the one I pasted above, I would cut them up into 5-9 sections that would then be used as 5-9 pop songs because it was about making money by selling songs based on volume. I actually worked out this formula based on Shannon’s inequality to help guide the company. The reason for cutting them up was because the masses like certain elements: a tempo of 120 beats per minute, sticking to the keys of C,A,G,E, and D, major and pentatonic scales; I called it the AC/DC effect…the same freaking song for 40 years with slight variations, but because it was familiar, it was like a conditioned response. People generally don’t like music that’s too complex for them to understand. If I had to guess at a percentage of the western world’s population that actually understood music, I would guess %5. Anyone who thinks that only following a trend or only listening to experimental music is what’s good, has no understanding of music. I’m pretty freaking proud of Tik-Tok because I mocked the hell out of club-going trendy girls while playing a tune based on the NES Double Dragon meets Mike Tyson Punch Out video game theme timbres. Everyone else rightly hates it 😀

    The quality of audio (music) is better today because the audio is clearer and not crammed into a mono track being reproduced from grooves in vinyl. The process of recording is better and the playback methods are better. When I was at the Audio Engineering Society Convention in San Francisco in 2006 I sat through a presentation for a new synth built by a NASA scientist…who was giving the presentation. But go back and listen to Jimmy Page play guitar for Led Zeppelin; it’s the crappiest, out of tune, off beat, butterfingers guitar I’ve ever heard. And I might add, the Beatles were the N’ Sync, New Kids on the Block, of the early 60s.

    There is plenty of experimental stuff out there right now, but the fact remains, we still use a lot of the same instruments, the same synths and synth patches, and people still don’t want to dive any deeper into an understanding of perception as it relates to music. I’m sure half of the people who read this stopped at “katy perry” above. How many “experimental artists” in western music actually change the tempo through the song? How many try doing a song in D minor? Tempo, key, scales, chords, harmonies, and timbre; have been bottle necking into a very particular type of music because that’s what our anatomy wants to hear. 120 beats per minute should sound familiar.

  • Phillip Helbig

    “How many try doing a song in D minor?”

    Aaahhh yes, the saddest of all keys!

  • Anant

    It is not ‘dumb’ as most people said. Music has evolved as did we in this 50years. The 60’s music is still not dead though people now tend to choose a simpler orchestation.

  • Chris

    This is an argument not even worth having. Strong opinions from Brett. Were The Beatles the N’ Sync of the early sixties? No. I would rather dance about architecture:) There’s great music from every era if you are willing to look for it. What’s great for you is completely subjective:

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  • Rick

    There is a point made that there is a lot of experimental mucic out there – you just have to look for it.

    I think that is the real point. There is alternative and eclectic music but it isn’t mainstream nor pop as rock was in it’s day, (published on all the popular air waves.)

    There is awesome alternative sights but you really have to look for them and that eliminates them from the majority of listeners, also eliminating the majority from the experience.

  • Kerry Maxwell

    Take a look at this list:

    Now look at the equivalent list for 20XX forty years from now. See anything anyone still remembers?

    Didn’t think so.

  • Fred

    Hey! All the good tunes have already been taken!

  • David Dickinson

    A certain age bracket always focuses on music more than those older or younger as a symbol of their culture through which they try to make whatever statements there are that they want to make. But from generation to generation, those statements never change. Every generation wants to make the same statement: “We’re different, and we’re better”. It is simultaneously always true and utterly meaningless.

    Commercial, formulaic music was quite as common in the 60’s as it is now. We suffered through several years of bubble gum back then, just as we had to find a way to survive through disco and much of the hip-hop and rap since then. Top 40 still controls the market, and any innovative music that penetrates that list has been forcibly shoved down the unwilling throats of the corporate labels by listeners.

    I mostly listen to my local university’s student and public stations today, and a lot of what I hear is no less diverse than it was when I was in school. But that regards only the variety of styles presented. On occasion, I’ll flip over to the golden oldies station and it immediately becomes apparent: Everything that we hear now was invented long ago. The experimentation we hear today is only in details.

    There is little difference between hip-hop and rock-and-roll when the scale is broadened to include every international variety of music. In western culture, we have settled on a certain relatively narrow band of rhythms and chord structures and melodies that we find particularly pleasing, and that band has certainly narrowed since the sixties. But that doesn’t mean that artists today are less creative. Their quest for the perfect song is no less intense as it was when The Beatles’ “Rubber Soul” blew my mind.

    Still, whether some “new” music is a revelation to its generation the way Rubber Soul was to me is strictly a relative judgement. It’s a matter of perspective. I don’t hear much today that I haven’t heard before, but it’s all new to my kids.

    I’m not going to spoil it for them — and I’ll let them decide whether or not they want to argue with their kids about it.

  • Brett

    I personally think that the only thing which has really changed is the ability for people to sit down and actually listen to music. The ability to be patient and listen to a song in it’s entirety as you would read an entire book (or at least a few chapters) before coming to a conclusion. People don’t analyze the music they listen to anymore. And this isn’t some old geezer getting grumpy, I’ve seen the change happen in the past 10 years and I’m 28. Attention spans get shorter and shorter, so music has to grab its’ audience quicker.

  • Jonathan McDowell

    Shouldn’t the graph go up to 11?

  • Rythem and Beat

    Roman #13, you might try Daniel Levitin’s book “The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature”

    Good discussion about our physical reactions to music, among other useful insights.

  • Yannick S.

    Yes, the music is louder which was a good thing when we started getting better signal/noise ratios. But the link above about the loudness war is relevant. Being someone who has recorded for myself and others there is lots of volume competition. I don’t follow this really but some have pushed music to the point of it being digitally distorted (compressed closer to white noise) which causes a sometimes inaudible but tiring effect to listeners (less dynamics). One theory is that this subliminally might cause people to get tired of albums faster.
    As for different music out there, there are some genres that offer more than the mainstream. Some more obscure metal genres include songs in minor, compositions spanning over 10 minutes per song, different instrumentation and tempos ranging from slower parts to over 260 bpm. Which almost explains why it’s not mainstream I guess. The jazz fusion scene or neoclassical guitar virtuosos are different examples. Some find that the year 2000 did mark some point of decline in several genres though and personally I would agree. Plus I also spoke with some musicians and read different articles across different genres where people felt that commercial powers had taken over even more compared to before.

  • David Dickinson

    @Brett Really? You really think that people are less able to “sit down and actually listen to music” today than they have been in the past?

    You haven’t seen my kids and their friends. They’re no different than my generation was.

    There may be cultural differences, and television may have disrupted brain development in too large a segment of the population, but when I watch musicians today, they pay no less attention to detail than we did in our bands.

  • Brett


    that’s what’s so tricky about all of it. A good production team (production teams have been around since Elvis; just putting that out there so nobody gets the wrong idea) is like a spy agency, you aren’t supposed to know they’ve done anything. But, and I realize the pooh-storm I’m bringing upon myself, musicians today are better than musicians in the past. With smarter people comes better music; but keep in mind, that’s just my perception of a subjective art. There’s also the ability to build on the styles of the past and make something at least as good, likely better. I’ll bet your kids are younger than the people of your generation that you’re thinking about, much younger. Why? They’re understanding it quicker and making better music because of that. But what comes with the ability to pick up music quicker is the tendency to get bored with it much quicker. You can’t deny that the amount of effort to grab a person’s attention hasn’t increased over the years. It’s because music is becoming so formulaic in all areas, that we don’t listen all the way through as much. And it really depends on how old your kids are and what stage they’re going through. Are they listening to things because that’s what they want to listen to, because that’s what all their friends/classmates think is cool, or because that’s what you think is good music and they’re either making fun of you behind your back or don’t want to hurt your feelings? It could be any combination of the 3; and I don’t mean to offend if you were offended. That’s not restricted to kids either. In fact, kids are more likely to listen to what they like. Adults are far more hesitant to listen to something they think will make them lose cool points. An insanely large percentage of adults who grew up listening to Ravi Shankar play 79 minute sitar solos will blast Selena Gomez with all the windows in their car rolled down if they think it makes them look younger and more hip.

  • Brett

    Come to think of it, That’s why music is louder; because it makes it easier to listen to. When music has a wider dynamic range, then your ears’ diaphragm has to work harder. Compressing music to make the volume less dynamic while making the frequencies heard more dynamic, is a way of making music more pleasing to your ear because you don’t have to pay attention as closely. Music has always been about 16-bits or 96 decibels. We’ve had the option to change that, but haven’t because this is more pleasing to the human ear. That’s hard evidence that people don’t listen as closely as they used to; the loudness war they call it. Last post, I promise.

  • jarles alberg

    Music pretty much is basically vibrations that can be perceived by the ear and sent to the brain for interpretation. Unless I am wrong, the human mind can only ascertain a certain range of frequencies. With a finite amount of frequencies available to play with, music is always going to be within the range of hearable frequencies. It’s just rearranging notes, and beats, and volume. That is, until music is created, that goes directly to the brain synapses, and then we might be able to create different brain experiences than music does now. Basically, since the 4 minute mile, we have been studying the basics and refining them. It is the same with any type of music in our megahertz range. We are just repeating the sounds in different ways. I have a feeling that our body blood flow emits a certain pitch, much like any thing in motion has some sound, and our inner sound production determines the basis for our musical appreciation. The difficult part of finding new music is becoming accustomed to that type of music. I’m basically a ”D” sort of guy, and like harmonics. But I have sung in choruses, both male and mixed, and sung very weird modern music. It grew on me over the learning curve, and usually I ended up enjoying the music by concert time. But I did not go back to that music for listening pleasure afterwards.

    The basic point no one has made is back in the 60’s, there was little ability to fix music. If you screwed up, most of the time you had to start over and do retake after retake. You were almost always live. But if any of you are old enough to have seen Jimmy Hendrix or a number of other music greats live in concert, you would understand my point. There was no lip synching, no overdubbing, or 100 tracks to pick out the best tones. There was no computer, correcting missed notes, like nowadays. If there ever has been a guitarist playing live in concert, better than Jimmy Hendrix, I’ve yet to hear it. And frankly I don’t really care for most of his music, although I did lose the hearing in my left ear ushering in front of his speakers at one of his live concerts. Bottom line is music is a personal experience, but is usually modified by your environment, as evidenced by the different comments so far. Not better or worse, just different

  • Glenno

    Your cooments are interesting Brett. They have prompted me to make the following observations:

    The MSD covers the period from 1955 to date. That means that some of the world’s greatest music is not included directly.
    I say directly, because there are some pop songs that are derivative of earlier music.
    Blues is a classic example, with some of the better known 60s bands recycling standard blues riffs and adding distorted guitars, new lyrics and the like to ‘moderise’ them – think Led Zepplin (big fan BTW).
    Music genres are inevitably going to lead to formulaic music which leads to a reduction in innovation.
    For many years, the limitations of the vinyl 45 meant that song structures also became formulaic with verepse, chorus, bridge, etc being crafted to fit within the time constraints imposed by the vinyl format.
    The analysis of the MSD does not seem to take account of non-melodic factors, such as beat, timing, key, mode, arrangement, effects and like differentiating factors that can separate performances of even the same song.
    Dynamic range limits, especially on early MSD songs, were a product of both recording technology and payback technology limits. Audiences got used to hearing flattened music and arguably expected to hear it faithfully reproduced by bands in live performances. Yet classical music has had a strong reliance on dynamic range to provide texture and emotion to music.
    Radio is another limiting factor on dynamic range as well as frequency, with engineers producing pop songs that would reproduce well on 4″ mono radio speakers against background traffic and wind noise.
    Song factories, such as Brill and Stock Aitken Waterman, have produced a lot of hits during certain periods of the post-1955 era using standard formulaic structures and major keys to meet the expectations of an unsophisticated audience with limited exposure to variety in music -think Kylie Minogue, the Phil Spectre sound, etc.
    Some musicians, such as Billy Joel, have been accused of being one man song factories that simply produce variations on the same underlying musical structure over and over. I am conflicted on the issue as I like some Billy Joel songs (Leninigrad, Downeaster Alexa).
    Music meets social expectations. The audience dictates, at least to some extent, the nature of the music It will accept. Surfers in the 60s did not want Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. They wanted Dick Dale and his ilk (confession- I am a surf music tragic). The Beatles did used elements from classical music and other styles in their later catalogue, but only after they had an established fan base used to “Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.”
    There is lots of ‘alternate’ music out there. You need only go looking, which isn’t hard with the Internet. The fact that it is not mainstream music is not a factor of how good or original it is. It is a combination of factors including that it may not meet wider audience expectations and it doesn’t have recording company promotional weight behind it. Those two factors should be seen as linked for obvious reasons.

    This is a very interesting discussion. Please accept this as my $0.02 worth.

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  • jarles alberg

    Maybe Discover should take a hard look at the replies to this article, and revise their theoretical basis for this particular study. It seems to me when your hypothesis ends, riddled with hole after hole, and unanswered questions, maybe your start point is either wrong or biased. I think this study should be done over, taking in many of the variables offered by this discussion group. But in the end, it will only be much ado about nothing. We will all still have our own opinions about the type of music we like, until the brain mapping folks step in and modify our brains through sound waves, etc. When that happens, we may end up liking what is controlling our mind, not what we think we like.

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  • Phillip Helbig

    Of course, what is good is a matter of taste. One can of course introduce objective criteria such as novelty, but as Cage, Stockhausen, Schönberg etc showed, one can have novelty without quality. Certainly there is good (but relatively unpopular) music being made now, and there was a lot of low-quality music 40 years ago. Can one say anything at all objective about quality? Good or bad, popular or unpopular, “classical” or “pop”, difficult or easy to play: these 4 axes are orthogonal. Is there anything meaningful in the title of this post?

    I think one can claim the following:

    What was popular 40 years ago is more diverse than what is popular now.

    People were more willing then to listen to types of music which were new to them.

    Music changed more rapidly. (Even if I don’t know the tune, I can hear if something is 1965 or 1970. Can one hear such a difference between, say, 1992 and 1997?)

    Fun fact: There are more different types of heavy-metal music than among all other types of music. :-)

  • Phillip Helbig

    “Shouldn’t the graph go up to 11?”

    Indeed. What a huge missed opportunity for an in-joke (if, indeed, the authors are in). With regard to Brett @ #15, I’m not sure whether he realized he made a brilliant in-joke. None more black.

  • Phillip Helbig

    “And I might add, the Beatles were the N’ Sync, New Kids on the Block, of the early 60s. “

    In the sense of impact on young girls, in some sense, yes, though the impact of the Beatles was much stronger. But the Beatles a) produced good music, b) were hugely influential and c) were very innovative.

    Actually, there are six orthogonal axes: the 4 mentioned above and 5) innovative or not and 6) influential or not. If we take the extremes, that makes 64 combinations.

    Watch all 6 parts (this is part 1: and come back. :-)

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  • don’t kill the messenger

    “Jimmy Page play guitar for Led Zeppelin; it’s the crappiest, out of tune, off beat, butterfingers guitar I’ve ever heard. And I might add, the Beatles were the N’ Sync, New Kids on the Block, of the early 60s. ”

    You, sir, are a moron.

  • Brett

    Your right Phillip @ #39, but those first three aspects of the Beatles didn’t really start to bloom until the late 60s when they started taking trips beyond the cosmos with Ravi Shankar and Tim Leary. And I’ve gotta say, Ravi Shankar’s daughter is #1 on my top five, never gonna happen, famous women I would cheat on my wife with list. Back to the Beatles though, it may seem like they weren’t the overproduced boy band of the day, but relative to the production methods of the day, they were. I thought I remember reading something about how they burned 100s of thousands of Beatles albums because John Lennon made the joke that they were received by fans as if they were Jesus; that gives you a marker for how up tight the culture was back then.

    And I still stand by it despite how upset you are, every kid wanted be Jimmy Page because they probably could have just picked up a guitar without any experience, walked right on stage, and filled in for him without anyone noticing. The only good fully British guitar based bands I can think of are: Queen (my personal pick for the best rock band now-past), or The Darkness… Or Wyld Stallions feat. the Grimm Reaper and Station 😀

  • Phillip Helbig

    “And I’ve gotta say, Ravi Shankar’s daughter is #1 on my top five, never gonna happen, famous women I would cheat on my wife with list.”

    Which one of his daughters? How about both?

  • Phillip Helbig

    “I thought I remember reading something about how they burned 100s of thousands of Beatles albums because John Lennon made the joke that they were received by fans as if they were Jesus; that gives you a marker for how up tight the culture was back then. “

    Maybe thousands but not hundreds of thousands.

    Very garbled. First, it wasn’t a joke. Second, it was misunderstood. He said something like (the exact quote is easy enough to find): “Christianity will go; it will vanish and fade. We are more popular than Jesus now.” Read it like “WE are more popular than Jesus now”, i.e. “Even we humble Beatles are more popular than Jesus now”. In other words, he wasn’t assuming Jesus is popular and hence if the Beatles are more popular then they must be really popular, but rather assuming that the Beatles weren’t that popular and hence Jesus was even less popular. One still might disagree, but this is a prime example of a quote taken out of context. As Lennon later clarified, had he said “television is more popular than Jesus now”, then there would have been less outrage. Also, he was referring to England, not the US, where Jesus is still more popular than the Beatles. Also, as he also clarified, it was merely a statement of fact, not saying the Beatles were better than Jesus or comparing the Beatles to God as a thing or whatever.


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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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