The Particle At the End of the Universe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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54 Responses to The Particle At the End of the Universe

  1. Barry Kort says:

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

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

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

  2. joe says:

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

  3. Sean Carroll says:

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

  4. Chris says:

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

  5. Sally says:

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

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

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

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

  8. mark says:

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

  9. Flapple says:

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

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

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

  10. Zach says:

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

  11. Chris says:

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

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

  12. Julien says:

    “The final particle.”

  13. Bob F. says:

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

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

  14. Lee Gomes says:

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

  15. Aaron says:

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

  16. Chris says:

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

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

  17. Mike F says:

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

  18. DMcK says:

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

  19. Aaron says:

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

  20. steve says:

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

  21. Mark Mighell says:

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

  22. Bee says:

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

  23. Bee says:

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

  24. Lab Lemming says:

    I like the title.

  25. Andy Jewell says:

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

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

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

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

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