Top Ten Amazing Higgs Boson Facts!

By Sean Carroll | November 13, 2012 10:53 am

To celebrate the publication of The Particle at the End of the Universe, here’s a cheat sheet for you: mind-bending facts about the Higgs boson you can use to impress friends and prospective romantic entanglements.

1. It’s not the “God particle.” Sure, people call it the God particle, because that’s the name Leon Lederman attached to it in a book of the same name. Marketing genius, but wildly inaccurate. (Aren’t they all God’s little particles?) As Lederman and his co-author Dick Teresi explain in the first chapter of their book, “the publisher wouldn’t let us call it the Goddamn Particle, though that might be a more appropriate title, given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing.”

2. Nobel prizes are coming. But we don’t know to whom. The idea behind the Higgs boson arose in a number of papers in 1963 and 1964. One by Philip Anderson, one by Francois Englert and Robert Brout (now deceased), two by Peter Higgs, and one by Gerald Guralnik, Richard Hagen, and Tom Kibble. By tradition, the Nobel in Physics is given to three people or fewer in any one year, so there are hard choices to be made. (Read Chapter 11!) The experimental discovery is certainly Nobel-worthy as well, but that involves something like 7,000 people spread over two experimental collaborations, so it’s even more difficult. It’s possible someone associated with the actual construction of the Large Hadron Collider could win the prize. Or someone could convince the Nobel committee to ditch the antiquated three-person rule, and that person could be awarded the Peace Prize.

3. We’ve probably discovered the Higgs, but we’re not completely sure. We’ve discovered something — there’s a new particle, no doubt about that. But like any new discovery, it takes time (and in this case, more data) to be absolutely sure you understand what you’ve found. A major task over the next few years will be to pin down the properties of the new particle, and test whether it really is the Higgs that was predicted almost five decades ago. It’s better if it’s not, of course; that means there’s new and exciting physics to be learned. So far it looks like it is the Higgs boson, so it’s okay to talk as if that’s what we’ve discovered, at least until contrary evidence comes in.

4. The Large Hadron Collider is outrageously impressive. The LHC, the machine in Geneva, Switzerland, that discovered the Higgs, is the most complicated machine ever built. (Chapter 5.) It’s a ring of magnets and experimental detectors, buried 100 meters underground, 27 kilometers in circumference. It takes protons, 100 trillion at a time, and accelerates them to 99.999999% the speed of light, then smashes them together over 100 million times per second. The beam pipe through which the protons travel is evacuated so that its density is lower than you would experience standing on the Moon, and the surrounding superconducting magnets are cooled to a temperature lower than that of intergalactic space. The total kinetic energy of the protons moving around the ring is comparable to that of a speeding freight train. To pick one of countless astonishing numbers out of a hat, if you laid all the electrical cable in the LHC end-to-end it would stretch for about 275,000 kilometers, enough to wrap the Earth almost seven times.

5. The LHC was never going to destroy the world. Remember that bit of scaremongering? People were worried that the LHC would create a black hole that would swallow the Earth, and we would all die. (It was never quite explained why the physicists who built the machine would be willing to sacrifice their own lives so readily.) This was silly, mostly because there’s nothing going on inside the LHC that doesn’t happen out there in space all the time. There was a real setback on September 19, 2008, when a magnet kind of exploded, but nobody was hurt. The current casualty list from the LHC mostly consists of people’s favorite theories of new physics, which are continually being constrained as new data comes in.

6. The Higgs boson isn’t really all that important. The boson is just some particle. What’s important is something called the Higgs mechanism. What really gets people excited is the Higgs field, from which the particle arises. Modern physics — in particular, quantum field theory — tells us that all particles are just vibrations in one field or another. The photon is a vibration in the electromagnetic field, the electron is a vibration in the electron field, and so on. (That’s why all electrons have the same mass and charge — they’re just different vibrations in the same underlying field that fills the universe.) It’s the Higgs field, lurking out there in empty space, that makes the universe interesting. Finding the boson is exciting because it means the field is really there. This is why it’s hard to explain the importance of the Higgs in just a few words — you first have to explain field theory!

7. The Higgs mechanism makes the universe interesting. If it weren’t for the Higgs field (or something else that would do the same trick), the elementary particles of nature like electrons and quarks would all be massless. The laws of physics tell us that the size of an atom depends on the mass of the electrons that are attached to it — the lighter the electrons are, the bigger the atom would be. Massless electrons imply atoms as big as the universe — in other words, not atoms at all, really. So without the Higgs, there wouldn’t be atoms, there wouldn’t be chemistry, there wouldn’t be life as we know it. It’s a pretty big deal.

8. Your own mass doesn’t come from the Higgs. We were careful in the previous point to attribute the mass of “elementary” particles to the Higgs mechanism. But most of the mass in your body comes from protons and neutrons, which are not elementary particles at all. They are collections of quarks held together by gluons. Most of their mass comes from the interaction energies of those quarks and gluons, and would be essentially unchanged if the Higgs weren’t there at all. So without the Higgs, we could still have massive protons and neutrons, although their properties would be very different.

9. There will be no jet packs. People sometimes think that since the Higgs has something to do with “mass,” it’s somehow connected to gravity, and that by learning to control it we might be able to turn gravity on and off. Sadly not true. As above, most of your mass doesn’t come from the Higgs field at all. But even putting that aside, there’s no realistic prospect of “controlling the Higgs field.” Think of it this way: it costs energy to change the value of the Higgs field in any region of space, and energy implies mass (through Einstein’s famous E = mc2). If you were to take a region of space the size of a golf ball and turn the Higgs field off inside of it, you would end up with an amount of mass larger than that of the Earth, and create a black hole in the process. Not a feasible plan. We haven’t been looking for the Higgs because of the promise of future technological applications — it’s because we want to understand how the world works.

10. The easy part is over. The discovery of the Higgs completes the Standard Model; the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood. That’s pretty impressive; it’s a project that we, as a species, have been working on for at least 2,500 years, since Democritus first suggested atoms back in ancient Greece. This leaves plenty of physics that we don’t yet understand, from dark matter to the origin of the universe, not to mention complicated problems like turbulence and neuroscience and politics. Indeed, we’re hoping that studying the Higgs might provide new clues about dark matter and other puzzles. But we do now understand the basic building blocks of the world we immediately see around us. It’s a triumph for human beings; the future history of physics will be divided into the pre-Higgs era and the post-Higgs era. Here’s to the new era!

  • X

    Are Higgsless-universe electrons really massless? There’s no mass introduced by mixing with massive hadronic states?

  • Curious Wavefunction

    So if it’s going to take a few years before we know for sure whether the recent particle is in fact the original Higgs, wouldn’t it make sense to wait until then to hand out Nobels for it?

  • Doug

    I’m confused on #8 and #9 – are we not made of quarks – which would not exist without mass? When I look up mass and gravity on wikipedia both mention that they sort of help to define each other. I thought mass was the characteristic of how a particle interacts with gravity. The Higgs field and Higgs boson interact with some particles that allow them to be affected by gravity. So without the quality of mass that we get from the Higgs, how does a person exist? What does the Higgs field actually do if it’s possible to have massive protons and neutrons without it?

  • Bob F.

    I just fired up my Kindle and there was your book that I pre-ordered. But I first have to finish your Mysteries of Modern Physics course and the new J.K. Rowling novel that I started. And there’s this thing about having to work for a living. Busy, busy.

  • Shantanu

    is there any connection between Higgs boson/Higgs field and theories of neutrino masses and mixing
    (such as see-saw models)?
    To me, the latter seems completely disconnected from theories of EW symmetry breaking or BSM physics, but maybe I am just ignorant.

  • Cory C.

    I think the important extension that we can take from the alleged discovery of the higgs particle/field is that it might help explain the asymmetry that allowed “normal matter” to prevail over anti-matter. “CP violation in B_s mixing from heavy Higgs exchange” is an extremely interesting bit of theory in which interaction with the higgs field is what leads to a preferential decay of particles such as the B meson to normal matter as opposed to anti-matter. I particularly like the discussion this paper has generated because it grants just as much validity to the Supersymmetry theory as it does to the now complete-ish Standard Model. It’s even possible that there is an entire “family” of Higgs type particle/field mechanisms, each with a slightly differing energy mass and charge.

  • Jorge Stolfi

    Since the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to a non-person (the European Union), perhaps the physics prize can be awarded to the LHC itself?

  • Brett Sampson

    Question about #7 above

    “The laws of physics tell us that the size of an atom depends on the mass of the electrons that are attached to it — the lighter the electrons are, the bigger the atom would be.” This statement totally confuses me, because it sounds like you are saying that an atom of Uranium has lighter electrons than an atom of helium.
    I was taught that the size (mass) of an atom depends on the number of protons, electrons and neutrons in it, not the mass of the electrons.

  • John Macken

    The Higgs mechanism suggests how fundamental particles might gain mass, but here is still a problem. The mechanism does not suggest how fundamental particles obtain the CORRECT amount of mass (inertia). For example, an electron has energy of 511,000 eV. If it was possible to confine this much energy as light trapped in a hypothetical reflecting box, that much confined light would exhibit a specific amount of inertia (see, chapter 1 ). It would be a violation of the conservation of momentum if an electron with energy of 511,000 eV had a different amount of inertia as the same amount of energy in the form of confined light. The Higgs mechanism leaves a lot of unanswered questions.

  • James

    @8 Brett Sampson

    “Bigger” as in size. It would be larger, not more massive (in fact, it would be lighter!).

  • Bruce

    Doug, Let me attempt to explain:
    Up and Down quarks have 2.4 and 4.8 MeV of mass respectively. The proton (2 Up and 1 Down) has about 938 MeV of mass. IOW, 1% of a proton’s mass comes from the valence quark’s mass which is imparted by the Higgs field. The remainder of the mass comes from relatavistic effects on the gluons and ‘sea quarks’ (quark/anti-quark virtual pairs from quantum fluctuations) within the proton.

  • Sean Carroll

    X– Electrons would still have some mass, but it would be incredibly small. Atoms would be of astronomical size at a minimum.

    Curious Wavefunction– They might very well wait. But the new particle is very higgs-like, and the inventors aren’t getting any younger.

    Doug– Gravity and mass are very different. Mass would exist even without gravity at all; it’s the resistance you feel when you push on something to try to get it moving. Quarks could exist even if they were massless. Protons and neutrons would be very different (actually, there would be many more observable baryons, since all the quarks would be massless), but their mass would be essentially the same, since it’s mostly from the strong interactions.

    Shantanu– There are connections, but since we don’t know a lot about the real origin of neutrino masses, it’s hard to say.

    Brett– That’s because your teachers assumed that electrons have a fixed mass (which they do, outside thought-experiment land). In the real world, uranium atoms are bigger (in size, not in mass) than hydrogen atoms because they have more electrons, therefore the outermost electrons fill shells that are larger. But if we imagine turning down the mass of the electrons, all of those atoms would get bigger. See:

  • Al Denelsbeck

    Fun fact #11: The entire time that we’ve been searching for the Higgs, everything in the universe has been hurtling away from us, getting faster the closer we got…

  • chris

    Sean, about your #7:

    if quarks were massless the proton would not be stable, decaying into a neutron. so there wouldn’t even be any nuclei around which electrons could orbit…

  • schnitzi

    >enough to wrap the Earth almost seven times.

    This number rang a bell with me — a little while back I computed how many times light could go around the Earth in a second. The answer was a bit over seven. So… the LHC has just under a light-second of electrical cable.

  • vmarko

    @14 chris:

    “if quarks were massless the proton would not be stable, decaying into a neutron. so there wouldn’t even be any nuclei around which electrons could orbit…”

    This is an interesting observation. Note that it holds only for free protons, so only hydrogen atoms could not exist. Heavier nuclei can provide dynamical stability for the proton, just as they do for the neutron (a free neutron is unstable, but a neutron bound in a nucleus is stable, in most cases).

    Of course, I agree that — if quarks are maseless then proton is unstable, and consequently hydrogen atoms cannot exist — is an argument enough. 😉


  • vmarko

    @12 Sean:

    “Doug– Gravity and mass are very different. Mass would exist even without gravity at all; it’s the resistance you feel when you push on something to try to get it moving.”

    Sean, say again? What happened to the equivalence principle? Inertial mass equals gravitational mass?

    Are you trying to discredit your own knowledge of general relativity in the eyes of the public? :-)

    Btw, strictly speaking, the gravitational “charge” is energy, while mass is just one form of energy (among many others). So simply put, gravity can exist without mass (think gravitational field of a photon), but mass cannot exist without gravity (mass is a form of energy, which is a source of the gravitational field).

    HTH, :-)

  • David Jacobs

    Dear Sean Carroll, a very large number of other physicists would agree with me that this statement is untrue:

    “The laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood.”

    This misleads the pubic, who often trust someone like you. In your follow up posts that try to defend the statement, you later change completely what you are saying, and remove the central phrase ‘are completely understood’. Instead you suddenly just say that we’ll still believe in electrons in 1000 years time. That is a totally different statement, and many would agree with it. But I’m going to take apart your original statement, which you’ve posted here, and in other places, and which you seem not to have retracted.

    If this is so, then no doubt you will be able to explain to us right here how the large-scale world we see around us emerges from the quantum world. To understand the laws underlying the physics of everyday life, we need to understand that, and in current physics we have absolutely no idea how it does.

    To understand quantum mechanics, we need to know what the wave function actually IS, we don’t know what it is at all. The wave function is central to the laws of physics. We know some of these laws, but we don’t understand them. We have spent 80 years trying to understand what the wave function is. We will not understand the laws underlying the physics of everyday life until we know what the wave function is.

    This is one of a long list of things that are not understood about the laws underlying physics. It means that there’s no way you could get the world we see around us to come out of the understanding we have at present. And that’s the acid test – could you construct the world we find around us out of the physics that we currently understand? Of course you couldn’t, you couldn’t get near it. There are questions relating to time, gravity, and many other areas that would make it impossible, because these things are simply not understood. You know how stuck we are in trying to understand some of these areas, so tell the public. Physicists know that already.

    So please, do the decent thing, and retract your statement right here. What you say is simply false, and very misleading to the public. Also, your tone is arrogant and seems somewhat drunk on power, as if the progress we’ve made in physics somehow reflects on you. Ironically, what you say means that it doesn’t, because the scientific enterprise lives and breathes a very different tone, and a very different attitude to the self-congratulatory one you exude in what you write. It is one of open-mindedness, and of admitting what we don’t know, which allows progress to be made. Your attitude is one that tends to hold progress back, by failing to admit what we don’t know.

  • Melanogaster

    #9: Stochastic electrodynamics’ vacuum energy is spatially uniform, canceling re gravity at Earth’s center.
    Rigorously derived. So?

    Absent Einstein, Ernest O. Lawrence’s MeV cyclotron energies for electrons (0.511 MeV/c^2 rest mass) are Newtonian disaster. Curve-fit or rewrite physics. Yang and Lee. Rigor does not repair defective postulates.

    Massless boson photons see zero vacuum anisotropy. Symmetry breakings patch parity violations for fermionic matter in isotropic vacuum. A trace chiral background, trace anisotropy, acts upon matter. 1) Noetherian connection between vacuum isotropy and angular momentum conservation is trace leaky for matter, MOND’s 1.2×10^(-10) m/sec^2 Milgrom acceleration. No dark matter detection. 2) Opposite shoes mount a vacuum left foot with different energies. They locally vacuum free fall along non-identical minimum action trajectories, trace violating the Equivalence Principle. Crystallography’s opposite shoes are enantiomorphic space groups. arXiv:1207.2442 loaded with single crystal P3(1)21 versus P3(2)21 α-quartz test masses ends parity “violations.” Look.

  • Richard M

    Now that there’s actual evidence of existence, the name “God particle” becomes even less appropriate.

  • Entropy

    @18 Yes, we can construct the everyday world from QM and relativity. We understand how it leads to atoms, how atoms lead to molecules, and how molecules lead to large scale structures. It requires no understanding of the wave function’s epistemology to describe a water molecule. We have a separate theory of gravity, space, and time, that works for everything in everyday life and then some. When one says “we completely understand the physics of everyday life,” it is implicitly acknowledging that there are still some large questions we can’t answer, but that every question you could ask about something that directly affects a person’s daily routine (and don’t say: but the exact origin of the Universe has a huge effect; true, but it’s not a mundane daily thing) has an answer.

  • dave

    “People were worried that the LHC would create a black hole”

    The Springfield Subatomic Supercollider DID create a black hole. I saw it on TV. It must be true.

  • Brett

    I’ve seen a lot of articles on the interwebs in the past few days talking about the predicted Higgs would be a nightmare because that means we are seriously missing something from our understanding of nature since dark matter and dark energy are not included in the standard model. So why is one side completely freaked out by this and the other side is happy? If it does turn out that this is a strict higgs exactly as predicted, then does that support the belief that dark matter and dark energy are misunderstood phenomena and not unidentified particles?

    I’ve also been reading over the Kyoto conference and it sounds reassuring that the parameters for new physics are being narrowed. I guess those who are upset, are upset because theories like SUSY seem to be getting shot down left and right. Also, why would the overabundance of photon-photon emissions signify that the higgs is made of composite particles?

  • David Jacobs

    Entropy, you’re wrong. We can’t construct the everyday world from QM and relativity, not if you’re referring to our UNDERSTANDING of QM and relativity, as both Sean Carroll and myself were talking about.

    You say “It requires no understanding of the wave function’s epistemology to describe a water molecule.” well it does if that’s what you happen to be talking about – the word ‘understanding’ came into the claim of Sean Carroll’s that I was discussing.

    It is one thing to know a law of physics, and another thing to understand it. The fact that some physicists nowadays can’t tell the difference is because in some areas we left interpretations behind a few decades ago, and forged on with just the mathematics. We’re now so involved in just the mathematics, that some confuse that with having an interpretation, and with having an understanding.

    But some physicists deliberately confuse one with the other, in order to give a false impression to the public, which is irresponsible. It’s similar to the way in which the church used to take power over people, by claiming to know all there was to know. Before that you had the village witchdoctor, he did the same thing. Basically, you say you know everything, and then you have a lot of power. But science doesn’t have to do that, there are many good scientists, who don’t abuse the profession.

  • Tony

    Sean, It’s true that you know and understand a great deal about the physics of the universe, but I’ll bet a dollar to a donut you wouldn’t understand my wife.

  • jpd

    entropy: whats the weather going to be tomorow ?

  • Tony

    My wife is just a collection of protons, neutrons, atoms and various other parts and processes, yet understanding these does not mean you can understand the whole. I wonder if the universe is a great deal like this? The parts equal more than than the whole.

  • Patrick

    I think when he says that we understand the physics of everyday life hr means it in a fashion of we understand the fundamentals of everything and you people complaining just take things to far. I understand your physicists and brainiacs i am one myself but the one thing i never lost durring mmy education was the ability to think and understand like a layman. I think if you turn that part of your brain on you will understand

  • Richard M

    David Jacobs: “It is one thing to know a law of physics, and another thing to understand it.”

    No, that’s not right. Laws of physics are descriptive of patterns in nature. If you know the law, you understand the description. If you think understanding a law entails something more, you are mistaken.

  • David Jacobs

    You’re entirely wrong. The interpretative side of physics is crucial, and many of the greatest 20th century physicists saw it as what we need to find. John Wheeler frequently said that we will one day find an underlying conceptual picture, and Einstein said there was a need for one. Ehrenfest argued that the conceptual side was the most important part of physics, and said complicated mathematics without conceptual understanding was a distraction.

    The only reason you don’t know these things is that you live in era where, having failed to solve the conceptual puzzles that confronted us in the 20th century, we have become immersed in the mathematics, and some dishonest people like to claim that what we have is the whole thing. In fact the reason for that claim is not only what I’ve mentioned above, but also to push back against a feeling of NOT understanding how physics works, because in many areas we don’t. So it’s partly what might be called compensatory behaviour.

    If we tried to construct the everyday world out of what we understand in physics, it would not look very like what we see around us. For one thing, it wouldn’t have the apparent motion through time that we all go through each day. Someone mentioned their ‘daily routine’ above, well to really get on top of your daily routine, you’d need motion through time. But as it is not understood in physics in any way, it couldn’t be provided. Physicists disagree widely on whether it exists at all, and we have what seems to be a rigorous proof coming out of special relativity that it must be some kind of illusion. And yet Sean Carroll has argued that it exists somehow, without really saying how. There’s a need to explain the local time rates of special relativity. This ignorance of what goes on underneath the everyday world, which we physicists all feel, is what he is partly trying to push back against. I hope this makes sense. I would not make these points if the public were not being misled – I’m not saying this for him, but for them.

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  • David Jacobs

    Yes, thanks for reminding me. The possible discovery of the standard Higgs boson, or something similar, doesn’t explain mass. To do that you’d have to explain the mass-energy equivalence, which we still don’t understand, but which is clearly central to the universe. The Higgs field might account for around 2% of the mass in the universe, and in everyday life. It only affects questions about the masses of elementary particles, it can’t explain the mass that is in the energy that binds more complex particles together. Sean Carroll quite rightly makes the point above.

    This makes it even more ironic that he trumpets our ‘understanding’ of the physics underneath everyday life in connection with the new boson measurements. The idea that it adds to our understanding by explaining mass is sometimes thrown at the public, but it doesn’t tell us anything that gives us a real understanding of mass.

    But we’ll end up with a real understanding of mass, and of all (or most) of these things. If you look at the history of physics, you’ll find we didn’t just get the laws, we got the conceptual side as well, and we developed an understanding of physics – that’s a very important part of it. But it sometimes develops behind the experimental side, or the mathematical side.

  • chris

    @16, vmarko

    i think it’s actually even more interesting. first of all, big bang nucleosynthesis depends in a very essential way on the stability of deuterons. i don’t think it is really known whether the deuteron would be stable with massless quarks. and then, secondly, in a purely neutron universe there would be no ordinary atomic pressure to stabilize stellar collapse. so unless i am mistaken, a contracting neutron cloud would essentially just collapse into a neutron star.

    a few splashes of “usual” nuclei would probably exist, but i’m not sure at all if they would exist in any non-negligible abundance.

  • Ray Gunn

    Sean – Thank you for #8. I had read many articles which included statements such as “not all mass comes from the Higgs” but then would not elaborate (including one in SciAm). Thanks for the explanation.

  • Peter

    Read the article. Not sure though whether that caused my head ache, or if it was a higgs boson hitting me in between the eyes…

  • Brett


    I realize there is no point in trying to comment back and forth because you are hell bent on defending your belief with no possibility of seeing things differently (which is a big indicator that you’re wrong), but we do understand the physics of everyday life. You seemingly don’t understand the limits of the various branches of physics.

    You would not describe the structural integrity of a building using quantum mechanics or general relativity because those two things wouldn’t describe squat about the building. You wouldn’t use particle cosmology to describe the building either because you would be applying mathematics and physical laws that do not accurately describe the building. You could make the tedious connection between those branches of physics, but you would be a moron for trying to describe classical physics in quantum or cosmological terminology because it would take up way too much time to describe something that’s already completely described by classical physics.

    All of the things you say ‘aren’t understood by Physics’ ARE understood by Physicists, so much so that it is assumed that a person reading this would already know them; and I’ll grant you this, Sean Carroll may be too smart to realize just how uneducated the general populace actually is, or maybe he just doesn’t feel like dumbing it down because he doesn’t have too and his fans don’t want him to, maybe he saves full explanations for his books…available on What YOU don’t understand is that 1 physicist is not as good as any other physicist. Just as there are good and bad doctors, musicians, construction workers, etc. etc. etc.; there are good and bad physicists, scientists who actually understand things and scientists who just happen to have a degree in physics but don’t have a good understanding of it. There is a point in all knowledge where things suddenly and massively click for some people and they understand how everything fits together in a field of knowledge. Most people never reach that point, yet they still go on to obtain a degree and hold an important position in society. I know plenty of physicists who don’t know squat about physics because they are more in love with the idea of being a physicist than the concepts of physics. But I guess the one final point I could make is this: the bigger a problem is, the longer it takes to interpret exactly what is going on. With that in mind, I do not know of anything in Physics that physicists are having trouble interpreting other than Dark Matter. If you could name an area of “everyday life” in which we don’t know the physics, I’ll bet I can give you the knowledge that you have overlooked with plenty of references. There is no question that we understand the physics of everyday life, the only question is whether or not your ego will allow you to accept that YOU DON”T understand it.

  • jpd

    “I do not know of anything in Physics that physicists are having trouble interpreting other than Dark Matter”

    i think you don’t know physics

  • David Jacobs

    You’re amazingly wrong, and I can show it easily. First though, your point about not applying QM to describe the structural integrity of a building. I can see what you’re talking about, but it doesn’t apply to what was being discussed. I was taking issue with a particular quote of Sean Carroll’s, which when he first said it in 2010, no-one of any weight in the field seems to have noticed, or bothered to take issue. But many like me would disagree strongly.

    I won’t go far with you, because I was taking issue with a real physicist, who like all real physicists, knows perfectly well how little we understand. If you were one, you’d know too. I could show you places where good physicists discuss these things, but you would be hard to convince, and I’m not prepared to try. Read Lee Smolin’s “The trouble with physics”.

    You say “I do not know of anything in Physics that physicists are having trouble interpreting other than Dark Matter.” Well, that certainly shows how little you know. You say:

    “If you could name an area of “everyday life” in which we don’t know the physics, I’ll bet I can give you the knowledge that you have overlooked with plenty of references.”

    Well I could give you six or seven such areas, but here’s one I’ve already set out for you – the motion through time in everyday life. We are so totally stumped in trying to intepret what we know about the observed apparent motion through time, that Lee Smolin said his famous words in that book:

    “I believe there is something basic we are all missing, some wrong assumption we are all making. If this is so, then we need to isolate the wrong assumption and replace it with a new idea….I strongly suspect that the key is time. More and more, I have the feeling that quantum theory and general relativity are both deeply wrong about the nature of time. It is not enough to combine them. There is a deeper problem, perhaps going back to the origin of physics […] Motion is frozen, and the whole history of constant motion and change is presented to us as something static and unchanging. If I had to guess (and guessing is what I do for a living), this is the scene of the crime….We have to find a way to unfreeze time.”

    As you can see, we have ‘trouble’ interpreting motion through time. So you can’t get “the knowledge that I have overlooked with plenty of references”. You’ve quite simply been misled, by reading spin on the internet.

    Those physicists who believe that motion through time exists – and it changes its rate in different places in the universe – have to explain why the proof we’ve had for 45 years that it’s an illusion is wrong. No-one can, but an increasing number of us are starting to believe it exists, including Sean, who when he talks to other physicists in his papers, admits what we don’t know – see this paper, entitled “What if time really exists?”.

    As I said, that’s as far as I’ll go with a non-physicist. But if Sean or any physicist wants to talk I’ll talk – but I doubt if anyone who knows the field will try to defend the ridiculous idea that the physics underneath everyday life is understood. All he was talking about was the excellent fact that we now have most of the laws in some areas – that’s a good achievement. But that’s not what he said. Good day, and good wishes to all.

  • Brett

    jpd and david jacobs, you’re both incredibly wrong and know nothing.

    Every problem you have in your absence on knowledge can be summed up in what I just commented – “Just as there are good and bad doctors, musicians, construction workers, etc. etc. etc.; there are good and bad physicists, scientists who actually understand things and scientists who just happen to have a degree in physics but don’t have a good understanding of it.”

    If you stick to searching the internet for your information, then you will not find the scientists who completely understand physics. Not that the internet is a bad place to start a thought, but it’s the worst place to finish one. And David, no physicist is going to go out of their way to talk to a hobbyist like yourself if you keep bashing things that are too complex for you to understand simply because you can’t understand them. That’s the point that you beautifully proved, that you are far too arrogant to be able to learn.

  • vmarko

    @36. Brett:

    Brett, from your comments I can conclude that you are not a physicist yourself. Therefore, I’ll kindly ask you to refrain from putting your words into physicists’ mouths.

    The fact is that Sean can write a claim like point 10 on his blog, and then outmanouver all (amateur) readers’ criticisms by redefining the meaning of “everyday physics”, using small print and “read more carefully”-type of arguments. However, his claims would have much more trouble holding water under serious peer review. In fact, I guess very few physicists would completely agree with Sean on this issue.

    How come, you might ask? Well, firstly, history teaches us that whenever someone makes a universal claim of that type, he is typically proven wrong afterwards (there are many examples of this). So physicists are becoming more and more cautious about such grandiose claims. And secondly, there are holes in his arguments. I’ll give a few hints about those in my next comment.

    HTH, :-)

  • Brett

    That’s what we are arguing about here Marko, that he is not saying the universe is completely understood; it’s in his comment that there are things we don’t understand. You are simply incorrect and pretending to be an authority on the subject when you are anything but 😀 It’s pointless to argue with someone who is so ignorant that they don’t realize this is a philosophical argument.

    And it’s the internet buddy. If you’re on here as much as we are, then you’re probably not at the top of your game. I believe you fit into the discussion as one of those physicists who has a degree but doesn’t necessarily understand the big picture.

  • Richard M

    David, you keep appealing to authority (Einstein, Wheeler, Smolin) but you give facts about physicists’ philosophical views, which are not the same as facts about physics or even facts about the state of the science of physics. Motion is a change measured in a spacetime continuum; you can’t have it with only one (temporal) dimension. I cannot imagine what problem in physics you are trying to convey with the phrase “motion through time”.

  • David Jacobs

    In everyday life, we observe, or seem to observe, a sequence of events. It’s as if there is some sort of motion along the time axis. This motion behaves in the geometry like motion at the speed of light along the time axis. This is unexplained. That’s what I was taking about, the observed apparent motion through time.

    Many physicists are now working on the problem of time, because most people think we need to solve it in order to get to quantum gravity. Some are trying to relate this sequence of events to causality, because that’s one of the few things that might be related to an order of events. The consistent direction of time is often related to entropy, because that’s one of the few things that only goes one way, and isn’t reversible. But no-one knows how this apparent motion arises, or appears to, and standard theory seems to prohibit its existence.

    That’s why it’s such a misleading statement to tell the public that the physics underneath everyday life is understood. Because in everyday life we move through time, but in the picture relativists believe in – that is, the standard view – we don’t. Many of us disagree with that standard view nowadays, including Sean. He mentions the problem in that paper I linked to, which you should read:

    “But partly, it arises from the difficulty we have in understanding time at a fundamental level.”

    Physicists all know about that difficulty we have, but it seems that some of you guys don’t. That’s because the public face of science tends to underemphasise the problems.

  • thomas vesely

    lots of very smart people here.
    a little like the catholic philosophers busy at the question;

    “how many angels can dance on a pinhead ?”

    we are asking for the sheet music.

  • Richard M


    dt/dt = 1. That solves your “motion through time” problem. Next?

  • jpd

    actually its the limit as dt -> 0
    so you have 0/0. is that = 1 ? maybe.
    depends on how you take the limit.

  • vmarko


    “10. The easy part is over. The discovery of the Higgs completes the Standard Model; the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood.”

    I disagree. Let me give you a few examples of kitchen-table experiments from everyday life, that may not be in accord with the Standard Model. What is considered “everyday life” in this context is essentially a matter of taste, but nevertheless…

    As a first example, consider the problem of the influx of Solar neutrinos (the famous “factor of 2 problem”). Experiment is easy (conceptually) — pick your favorite neutrino detector, and use it to measure the flux of neutrinos coming from the Sun. Theory is not that easy, but can be worked out, essentially coming out of the Standard Model — calculate the predicted value for the neutrino flux, given a Sun-like star. Compare and contrast — the experimental value is in direct contradiction with the Standard Model prediction. Of course, this contradiction is by now resolved, by doing more experiments, and (crucially) by substantially changing the neutrino sector of the Standard Model, in order to match the new experiments. All this happened fairly recently, btw.

    There are now two Standard Models — the old one, which does not match all experiments from everyday life, and the new one, which does, but is a highly nontrivial revision of the old one. Several years ago, before neutrino oscillations were experimentally confirmed and the SM readjusted, I could have pointed you to a “finger-in-the-eye” contradiction between SM and an everyday common thing — the Sun.

    The second example is a bit hypothetical, but legal nevertheless. Experiment is literally of “kitchen table” type — put one mole (i.e. 10^{23} atoms) of water in a box, and measure its mass (using the scales, against some predetermined standard body called “1 kg mass”). Calculate the total number of protons and neutrons in the box, and divide, to experimentally obtain a value for the proton mass. Feel free to approximate that neutrons and protons have roughly the same mass.

    Now go for the theory — start from the Standard Model, and do an ab initio QCD calculation of the proton mass. Hmm… Oh wait, noone knows how to calculate that! The best effort so far (to my knowledge) is, but that only computes hadron mass ratios rather than the masses themselves. The value of the proton mass is so far an unsolved problem in QCD.

    And now comes the kick — just for the sake of the argument, assume that in (say) ten years from now, some genius figures out some fantastic method and calculates the proton mass nonperturbatively. And again for the sake of my argument, assume that he finds that the theoretical value for the proton mass is only 20% of the experimentally measured mass. What will happen then? Well, a large portion of the Standard Model will have to go down the drain, and SM theorists will have a lot of work on their hands.

    So there you are — I am giving you a kitchen-table experiment (weigh a bottle of water, and do some math on it), and this experiment is — potentially — in straight contradiction with the Standard Model.

    Of course, I don’t believe this will happen — rather, I believe that SM will give a correct value for the proton mass, once we manage to calculate it. But this is just a belief, and can very well turn out to be false!

    Bottomline — because of the above two examples (and others like them), I do not dare to claim that physics of “everyday life” is a solved problem. There are still open problems on “everyday” scales. Our belief that the known theory will give a correct account for those problems (once they become computationally tractable) is just like the belief of early 20th century physicists that the blackbody radiation and the Michaelson experiment are just two complicated problems that the classical Newtonian mechanics will handle naturally, once someone formulates the appropriate calculation. I don’t want to take the risk of being wrong in that kind of way. If Sean does, it’s his choice, but I doubt that many other physicists would support him on that.

    HTH, :-)

    Sean, I would really appreciate if you could devote a few moments to comment on this, I’d be very interested to know what you think.

  • Richard M

    jpd, maybe you should retake calculus. dt/dt is already a limit of (delta t)/(delta t) as delta t approaches 0. You don’t need to take the limit of the limit.

  • vmarko

    @41. Brett:

    You are free to question my expertise as much as you want, it’s your own opinion.

    However, the fact that I am frequently reading Sean’s blog and sometimes post comments means only that I find the topics of the blog interesting enough. It has nothing to do with my professional life, or being “not at the top of my game” or “internet buddy”, or whatever.

    Btw, you could say that Sean himself is not at the top of his game, by the same argument, right? Please, let’s stick to the topic…

    HTH, :-)

  • jpd

    maybe i should.
    l’Hopital’s rule requires the functions to be continuously differentiable.
    maybe time isn’t.
    now i see you are editing your clever comment to avoid l’Hopitals rule.
    i should get a hobby.

  • Marshall Eubanks

    I wouldn’t regard the standard model as really complete until the axion is nailed down. I understand that YMMV.

  • Richard M

    What’s the diff? Would you like to claim (delta t)/(delta t) != 1?

  • Meh

    I would argue that while we do have a complete algebraic understanding of the laws of physics underlying everyday life, we are still trying to complete our geometric understanding. So it’s really both yes and no. You could say that the geometric understanding is our ability to conceptualize the algebra we’ve been using all these years. You could also say that we do have a complete understanding based on existing proofs and that the geometric understanding is 95% complete. I do believe that Sheldon Cooper syndrome tends to take over in some people when they read what Sean is saying. By that, I mean that we know there is no known limit to the universe, so there will always be something else to learn that we don’t know. We were sure that our galaxy was the universe, then that the universe was the universe, now that the multiverse is the universe. There are people who want to find a reason to fight and argue and blow things out of proportion, it happens. The real question to be answered is if limits truly exist at all or if space just goes through a seemingly infinite number of phase changes.

    EDit: and now that I say that, I always jump at the opportunity to plug Craig Hogan’s experiment. done.

  • jpd

    no, i am just saying dismissing the details as unimportant is
    not a good idea. and the details of ‘everyday physiscs’ are not ‘completely understood’

  • Meh

    very true, the finer details are not understood. But I think everyone knows what Sean was saying. People just tend to blow it out of proportion. Have you noticed that on the internet in the last few years? I think writing things instead of hearing the inflection in someone’s voice tends to leave out a lot of details about what they are actually saying. But Sean may have covered that on a previous topic, that he only has 1000 words or less (something like that) so he can’t really write half a book about it. The finer details about the finer details get left out. But to be thorough, he did say that it leaves plenty of physics that we don’t yet understand. Those were actually his exact words, so I think he did do a pretty decent job of covering it. Though he didn’t use your exact words, again, I think anyone intelligent enough to understand math and physics (such as yourself) is intelligent enough to know what he means and that a lot of people are angry about something that he clearly addressed.

  • Meh

    @David Jacobs,

    There’s also a split between the authorities on whether or not time actually exists at all. Some physicists think that time is the result of space and some physicists think that space is the result of time. And a large portion believe the 2 exist together because it’s not their field of study and they’re too busy to worry about it, lol. If I wanted to get Higgsy, I would say that the concept of breaking symmetry in order to give birth to the universe would be good evidence towards time being a result of space. That’s purely my opinion though.

  • C. Takacs

    On a purely logical level,
    In #53 you say “I would argue that while we do have a complete algebraic understanding of the laws of physics underlying everyday life, we are still trying to complete our geometric understanding.”
    then you go on to say in #56:
    “There’s also a split between the authorities on whether or not time actually exists at all.”

    If there is no time, then E=mc2 falls pretty flat. The ‘c2’ part is about the ‘speed of light squared’, a velocity squared. A velocity as you know is d/t. Your ‘t’ can never be zero, operationally or otherwise if you intend to calculate. Time is not some mystical thing to be bandied about like you can take it or leave it like an opinion or some imaginary mathematical space to fudge your answers. Time operationally is itself a ratio of one distance over another with only as much accuracy as the clock used. Without time, you have no ability to measure any type of change.

    I only bring this up to demonstrate that if what you say in your comment #53 is true, then what you say in #56 can not also be true. If what you say in #56 is true, namely, that there is “a split between authorities on whether time actually exisits at all” then what you (and Sean??) are saying in #53 is false by your own argument, since if the very existence of time is in any kind of question, there certainly can be no consensus of ‘complete algebraic understanding’ about the laws of ‘everyday’ physics… since they ALL depend on a period of time to function, much less be calculated.

    In short, if you jettison time, or play word games with it and make it disappear with a ‘Higgsy’ hand waving, you also jettison all velocity equations, and thusly, your energy and mass equations. At that point, symmetry breaking or not, you have nothing to left to call physics.

  • David Jacobs

    NB. Just an additional note. To explain mass, the Higgs field would have to relate mass to three things, because we know mass is related to them.

    1. Energy

    2. Inertia

    3. Gravity

    It doesn’t relate mass to any of them, though there are hints that it might one day contribute to relating mass to inertia. Inertia comes into everyday life a lot – it’s what you feel when your car drives around a corner, and you feel inertial forces pulling you over to one side. It has no complete explanation, but the standard view is that the gravity of all the distant galaxies combines to cause it. This idea that it’s a long distance effect, known as Mach’s principle, has problems. Recently there have been attempts to describe inertia as a local effect, and if the Higgs field were one day able to help explain inertia, it would be as a local effect.

    So of the three things the Higgs field needs to relate mass to, the only one that looks possible is one where it would totally overturn our present understanding. This shows how very far from the truth the idea that we completely understand the physics underneath everyday life is.

    By the way, in post 34:

    “I had read many articles which included statements such as “not all mass comes from the Higgs” but then would not elaborate (including one in SciAm). Thanks for the explanation.”

    That is because when the physics surrounding the Higgs boson is communicated to the public, there is a reluctance to say that the 98% of mass which remains unexplained is in the form of energy. That’s because many people know about the mass-energy equivalence, E = Mc^2, and so mentioning it would go near the point that the Higgs field doesn’t explain the mass-energy equivalence. But if the public knew that, then even a non-physicist would be able to see that the situation is not what they’re portraying it as, because even though he doesn’t understand it, he knows how important that mass-energy equation is. That’s probably why you couldn’t find a detailed explanation. The other 98% of the mass in everyday objects is in the energy that binds more complex particles together, but we don’t understand this mass.

  • Entropy

    @26 Weather is the canonical example of a chaotic system. We could exactly describe the weather tomorrow if we had perfect knowledge of initial conditions. However, in a chaotic system, small inaccuracies in the initial conditions grow exponentially so that predictions are worthless within a few of the system’s characteristic times. We understand the physics behind the weather. We simply don’t have the measurement precision necessary to make perfect predictions. Take a look at the Hurricane Sandy projections to see how impressively close we can come even with our imperfect data.

  • Pingback: Top Ten Amazing Higgs Boson Facts! | Geneva Irish Pubs()

  • Meh

    @ 57,

    I hear you man, talk to the physicists who don’t believe time exists. But I think the difference between the two sides of the argument over the existence of time is side 1: time is a change in spatial dimensions and is an illusion as a result. side 2: the change in spatial dimensions is the result of the dimension of time. There are physicists out there trying to prove that relativity theory is incorrect; my point being that anyone can question anything they like, no matter how out of bounds it may seem. My comment on time was just a reply to David Jacobs intended to illustrate that he’s correct. There are certain things we haven’t reached a consensus on. Yet while we don’t know what time is, we still understand the laws that govern it. Time moves in 1 direction. It is required for our universe to exist and to describe any physical phenomena. Understanding the Laws does not translate to knowing every detail about an event. Just like judicial laws, the laws of physics provide a rough outline of what’s allowed to happen with the finer details being left to peer review analysis. It is possible to make this outline more accurate as needed; but in all instances of physics, we are still increasing that level of accuracy. So yes, the *laws* are understood, but can always be more accurate. Every single physical phenomenon is not understood. We will always be gaining more and more accurate information about the laws of nature, but as it stands, we do understand nature enough to completely understand everyday life. We are lacking in our ability to calculate and in the level of detail that we understand those laws, but we understand them to the point that we can completely describe everyday life. By everyday life I mean : does it matter if a single atom of carbon breaks down in your body? no. If all carbon atoms suddenly became unstable then yes, that would be a problem. But I guess it’s another argument like the argument over time existing; yes, quantum laws do effect everyday life if the collective quantum effects of all quantum states in our everyday objects are measured, but no in the sense that there is no way to measure that with our current methods of calculation without it deteriorating into chaos (and we just flat out can’t fully measure a quantum system, though I shouldn’t have to say that, I am). We have an outline for quantum phenomena, and because my body has broken down into a pile of goop then I can safely assume that all composite quantum systems in my body are working just fine, though I have no calculable evidence that each quantum state is as it should be.

  • Meh

    uhh, should read “has not” broken down….

  • David Jacobs

    Just to clarify what I was saying – underneath every physical law there is something going on. Learning what it is is called finding the interpretation of the physical law. We know from history that our understanding of what is underneath the laws tends to move along a few decades (or more) behind our knowledge of the laws themselves.

    For instance, put a hot object next to a cold object, they both start moving towards a temperature in the middle. A few centuries ago people used think that cold flowed out of the cold object into the hot object, and heat flowed out of the hot object into the cold object. Some decided that there’s only heat and the absence of heat, so they were getting nearer the correct interpretation. They decided there was a substance called caloric that flowed into the cold object from the hot object. At this point they were wrong, but they could in theory have derived the laws at that point, or some of them, because the laws are separate from the understanding. Nowadays we know that heat is particles moving around more rapidly within the hot object. This is transmitted to the particles in the colder object. The interpretation may well go on improving, but it’s a lot better now.

    At present we have many laws with no interpretation, and no understanding, whatever they tell you. We don’t know what inertia is (there are several different versions of Mach’s principle, and they contradict each other), we don’t know what time is (standard theory says it HAS to be an illusion in our perception, but this doesn’t fit with a lot of things), we don’t understand matter (because the nature of the wave function is the biggest mystery we’ve ever come up against, we simply don’t know what it is), we don’t understand gravity (because when you drop something in the kitchen in everyday life, our physics describes how it moves towards the ground with great precision, but not why it starts moving in the first place). So we don’t understand many of the laws we have that describe the physics of everyday life. But we will, and probably this century. We always get there, way to go…

  • Meh

    Everything you’re saying is true, but is irrelevant because you are confused about the statement itself. We don’t need to know what inertia is to understand how it effects our everyday lives as humans. We only need to know the laws of inertia. You are incorrect in that we do actually understand all of the laws we have that describe the physics of everyday life; you just aren’t happy with the degree of accuracy at which we understand those laws and keep dragging the concept outside of the limits of everyday life. The degree of accuracy that we understand them is enough to explain everyday life. You don’t need to know why an object travels towards the ground in the first place in order to know that it is going to travel towards the ground every single time. That’s the law of everyday gravity (physics) at a human scale; that it’s going to travel towards the ground every single time. Your argument over the wave function shows that you don’t understand the statement because the wave function is quantum mechanics and we don’t need quantum mechanics to explain everyday life. An understanding of quantum mechanics increases our ability to manipulate nature (one day), but is not needed to describe how a car operates or how your microwave works or how you are alive or why you die. It can increase our level of detail in understanding those things, but is not needed to understand and utilize them.

    What you are saying is correct, but what you don’t understand is that it is not needed. That is the barrier you are having trouble overcoming. We don’t need to understand quantum gravity or the origin of gravity to understand gravity experienced every day. We don’t need to know the greatest lower and least upper boundaries of the laws to have a complete understanding of them because we will never reach those limits. Even if we had a complete theory of gravity we would still ask what’s beyond that? and then what’s beyond that? “what is past that limit” is an eternal question. That doesn’t mean we won’t understand gravity as it applies to our universe or quantum mechanics. Your argument is (for lack of a better or more respectful term) nonsense because of that eternal question. If we had a theory of quantum gravity then why not ask what caused quantum gravity? well, we don’t have a full understanding of gravity if we don’t know what causes quantum gravity. If the answer were thermal gravity, then you would argue that we wouldn’t have a full understanding of of gravity without knowing what causes thermal gravity…etc.

  • David Jacobs

    You’ve forgotton what we were discussing, I never said we needed to understand them to use the microwave or the car. I also never implied a lot of what you say above.

    What was being discussed was simply Sean Carroll’s statement “The laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood.” He made this statement on four different posts, this being the most recent one, they started in 2010. I only found them the other day. They’re linked to above – he said in one of them that his motive for making the statement was partly to test the waters. Well, now he has.

    I’ve shown clearly that he’s wrong to say that, and I know that many of my colleagues would agree with me, and find this kind of distortion of the facts outrageous. Physicists often don’t bother to tell the public the truth when someone distorts the facts about physics in the media. But this instance was a particularly misleading one, and from someone in a position of responsibility.

    I’ve already mentioned various bad effects of misleading people in this way, but a general one is that it makes progress in physics slower. One of you might solve one of these mysteries one day – if you know they exist. Two things get swept under the carpet too easily – the mysteries, and the clues. The clues are often what doesn’t fit with our present picture, so they stick out and look embarrasing to those who polish science’s image. But to make progress, we should be telling everyone, and putting our heads together on these exciting things. All the best to you, I hope the discussion has been of interest.

  • Meh

    you wouldn’t happen to be a rabbi, would you?

  • Joan Hendricks

    To Sean Carroll;

    Thank you so much for this new book. I just got it and started reading it a few days ago and I already understand a whole lot of things that have been a mystery to me even after reading a lot of other books by well-know physicists. Your way of explaining things makes it possible for a lay person with a tremendous interest in these topics to understand the underlying concepts.

    • Sean Carroll


  • Lamon

    The big stuff like the atom & pretty much most of what we will ever discover came without & WAY before the LHC.

    Its just the layer on the cake, it literally does nothing for understanding QM any further & the mystery of the early universe. If the LHC is not hype, advertising in science & waste of money, then what on god’s polluted earth is?


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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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