The Particle at the End of the Universe by Sean Carroll

Several thousand scientists at a handful of different research centers spent a gazillion hours and a huge pile of money searching for the Higgs Boson. But, nobody really cares that much about the Higgs Boson. The important thing is the Higgs Field. The Higgs Field is this thing that is everywhere, as these spooky quantum fields tend to be, but that has a strange characteristic that makes it different from other fields; at rest the Higgs field has a non zero energy level. This means that its effect on particles is asymmetric. What that means is that when you write a mathematical formula of what happens to each of various different related and quasi similar particles such that the particles “look” the same way as each other in the formula, but then add in the effect of the Higgs field, the particles no longer “looks” the same. The symmetry of the formula is broken. I short, the Higgs field breaks symmetry. The result of this breaking of symmetry is that certain (most but not all) of the fundamental particles that make up matter act differently than a whole bunch of other thingies that make up the universe and you get … stuff. Without the breaking of symmetry caused by the Higgs Field, there really wouldn’t be much stuff, and if there was any stuff, it would be very different than the stuff we have now. The Higgs Particle itself is the product of extremely rare and hard to reproduce in the lab events, and the specific nature of the Higgs Particle, as measured by ginomrous devices that can’t really detect the particle directly but do so indirectly, should “look” a certain way (have certain products at a certain energy level) if the Higgs Field exists and is what we (and by we I mean they) think it is.

There. That was my best shot at explaining what I learned about Higgs from reading Sean Carroll’s book, The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World.

As I read this book, I tweeted individual sentences or paraphrases that looked important, and in some cases was descended upon by flesh eating amateur physicists who yelled at me for totally misunderstanding the Higgs. The main objection was actually a misunderstanding; I used the word “Higgs” and the person objecting thought I said “Higgs Particle” but I had not specified that. Be careful with that. Apparently “Higgs” means “Higgs Particle” and if you mean “Higgs Field” then you better say it that way! My point in mentioning this is simply to say that I don’t understand anything in this book in the way that certain other people who are quite sure that they are correct seem to and they can be very mean about it!

I totally get that. I have a rather sophisticated and nuanced understanding of behavioral biology, and I meet very few people who are not specialists who don’t constantly make basic errors in their thinking and talking about that subject. But there is a version, or really a few versions, of behavioral biology that are approximations, often using analogies and metaphors, that people use and can get by with. The problem with those versions of behavioral biology is that while they work well for certain discussions, since they are incomplete or oversimplified, they fail when applied to other areas. Most likely, my description of Higgs (field/particle) up above is like that. It is probably wrong in myriad ways that can’t really be explained in a paragraph or two. (I invite you to yell at me about my understanding of Higgs in the comment section below!)

Sean Carroll provides an interesting analogy that probably acts this way, as a good way to understand a subtle and key concept in physics but that would fall apart the minute it steps off the stage. Here’s my version of it:

Sean Carroll and I go to a conference of Physical Scientists. It is just before the official banquet starts and about half the people have already sat down at their tables, the other half are milling around. Sean and I are to sit at a table together at the opposite side of the room, so we enter the room and we proceed in that direction. But since it is a conference of Physical Scientists, many people in the room recognize Sean, but nobody recognizes me. As we walk across the room, Sean is constantly being stopped, chatted up, people are getting him to sign copies of his book, and so on, but they totally ignore me.

Had the room been empty, he and I would have walked together, mutually adjusting our walking pace as humans tend to do, and arrived at our table at exactly the same time. The empty room does not break our symmetry. But in the room of Physical Scientists, I arrive at our table at the expected time, but Sean is much delayed. Since he and I interact with the room of people in a totally different way, symmetry is broken. That, apparently, is what symmetry and breaking symmetry means in Physics, and although I could not personally make any breakthroughs in that field of study with this level of understanding, the truth is that for the first time in my life I have a clue of what “symmetry” means in Sean’s field because I read this book he wrote. I consider that a success.

The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World does several things. It gives a good overview of particle physics and quantum mechanics and so on, explaining what the various bosons and fermions and stuff are. It gives a good overview of high energy physics, which means using accelerators to make subatomic particles move really fast and smash into each other, and explains why you would want to do that. The book gives an overview of the history of this sort of research and how it came to be that the largest accelerator ever is the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. And, the book explains what the Higgs Field and Higgs Boson is/are, how it can be detected, and what actually happened at CERN.

I very much enjoyed the book and I highly recommend it.

I regard high energy physics, as well as cosmology, as vocational interests. I know just enough about these topics to not be put off by general reading at the level of books like this one, or articles in Scientific American, but I’m sufficiently ignorant that I’m always amused and amazed by whatever I encounter. For years I was in the habit of reading the physics articles in Scientific American first, and often ignoring the articles in my own field because they were secondary literature and oversimplified. A lot of people do what I do in this regard. If you enjoy reading about amazing physics, you will enjoy this book.

I have the hardcopy version of the book, but I’ve also seen the Kindle version. There are some cool graphics in the hard copy that don’t really come through in the kindle version, but you can in fact do without them. The important parts of the story are told in words, and told very well.

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4 thoughts on “The Particle at the End of the Universe by Sean Carroll

  1. I just finished reading it too. My understanding is about the same as yours but I don’t use the word “stuff” 🙂

    This book of his is more readable than his last book “From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time”

    I can understand why physicist object to you using “Higgs” when you mean “Higgs field”. It is equivalent to you using “Photon” when you mean “electromagnetic field”

  2. Well, I’m sorry if you are not up on the technical terms!

    I don’t know why, because it is not the “electromagnetic particle” and “electromagnetic field” but I see you point that they physicists may be confused about language.

  3. The “electromagnetic particle” is called the photon for historical reasons. The idea that electromagnetic energy comes in discrete packets was introduced at the beginning of the 20th century, first as a convenient mathematical fiction by Max Planck to explain the blackbody radiation spectrum, and then a few years later by Einstein to explain the photoelectric effect (the paper for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize). By the 1920s the idea of light as particles (co-existing with light as waves) was well established, and these light particles came to be called photons.

    Then, in the 1940s, theoretical physicists (of whom the best known today is Feynman, but several others contributed, including his co-Nobelists Schwinger and Tomonaga) developed what is known as quantum electrodynamics (QED). In this framework, forces are treated as “fields” (this term has a technical origin in mathematics), but the forces can be viewed as being mediated by particles. Thus the photon is the particle that mediates the force carried in the electromagnetic field. (I’m not sure I have that totally correct, as it’s been two decades since I took a QED course.) It was later shown that QED could be applied to the weak nuclear force, and with a bit of generalization, called QCD (quantum chromodynamics; the particles involved have a sort of three-way charge that physicists call “color”), it can also be applied to the strong nuclear force. One of the Holy Grails of physics is to produce a similar treatment for gravity; string theory has been considered the most promising route to this goal for the last 30 years or so.

    Enter Peter Higgs. He realized, back in 1964, that there had to be some way to break certain symmetries, such as that between matter and antimatter, and the fact that similar particles have different masses. So he introduced a new field, now known as the Higgs field, mediated by particles called Higgs bosons. (Bosons are particles whose spin angular momentum is an integer multiple of Planck’s constant, as opposed to fermions, whose spin angular momentum is a half integer multiple of Planck’s constant. The names honor Satyendra Bose and Enrico Fermi, respectively. Photons, and all of the other particles that mediate forces, are bosons; electrons and quarks are fermions.)

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