The Particle at the End of the Universe: Review

Somebody kindly offered me a review copy of Sean’s book in the comments so to encourage others to do likewise I shall offer my opinion of “The Particle at the End of the Universe: The Hunt for the  Higgs and the Discovery of a New World” by Sean Carroll.

The book I got was actually a virtual one which has the advantage of being searchable so the first thing I did was check to see if I got a mention. Apparently this blog (or rather its comments) turns out to be the place where the 125 GeV rumour first arrived on the internet. It is not what I would have chosen to be mentioned for but it’s better than nothing I suppose.

After a year of Higgs madness that swamped the media there will be plenty of people wanting to read more about it, so Sean has done well to get this book out in time for Xmas with the full story (so far). There is an obvious list of questions about the boson that people would like to ask and Sean conveniently answers them all chapter by chapter. Sean has been answering these kinds of questions on blogs and usenet before blogs for a long time, so he is pretty good at it, but explaining what the Higgs boson is and does in general terms is notoriously difficult. Sean does his best with a mixture of analogies and more direct explanations. Whether he succeeds would have to be judged by someone who does not already know the answers but I think it would be hard to do much better than this book.

There were two chapters that I found especially interesting. The first was about the thorny question of the Nobel prize for the Higgs. I compiled a list of contributions to the Higgs prediction a while back, but Sean goes one better by fleshing it out with the full story. It is very balanced and will be essential reading for the Nobel committee next year, but they will have to find their own solution to who gets the prize.

There is another side to the story of the Higgs discovery that sets it apart from previous discoveries in physics. It happened in the age of the blogs and social media. Sean is well placed to talk about the impact this had and his chapter about nit is the second one I liked a lot.

So overall it is a very good book. Enjoy.

17 Responses to The Particle at the End of the Universe: Review

  1. Robert L. Oldershaw says:

    For the other side of the story, and we do like balance in science, consider the following.

    Firstly, the Higgs boson has not been discovered, but rather a Higgs-like boson resonance which may be a fairly boring repeat of the hundreds of other unstable boson resonances already found.

    Secondly, before the LHC came on-line, the predictions for the Higgs mass ranged from about 100 GeV to 800 GeV!!!
    After the fact of finding a bump at 125 GeV THEN they single out the predictions that conform to that result! That is not cricket in science and it is not right to play along with this just-so story.

    Theories of principle like special and general relativity can make definitive predictions that allow relatively straightforward yes/no tests. Einstein said that if the eclipse experiment did not yield the predicted effect on space-time, then GR would be wrong – end of story.

    For over 40 years theoretical physics has been based on model-building in which an ad hoc model is fitted to empirical results (and vice versa), i.e., the Ptolemaic method. There are no guiding principles and so no definitive predictions.

    Instead we get pseudo-scientific hypotheses like the “ad hoc WIMP conjecture”. No predictions of the masses or the exact physical properties are possible. Not a single “WIMP” has showed itself in over 40 years of dogged and very expensive snipe hunting.

    String theory has yet to offer a single prediction after 44 years.

    SUSY predictions are “adjustable predictions”, which amount to no predictions. If “sparticles” fail to show up at the LHC, then they just say that they must be at higher energies. Sure, or perhaps off on astral planes.

    The standard model of particle physics has 7 serious problems which I have repeatedly listed at various places, and will again if it is desired. The standard model can only viewed as a provisional heuristic model for particle physics.

    Bottom Line: No guiding principles = no definitive predictions = pseudo-science. Haven’t we had enough of that rubbish over the last 40 years?

    Robert L. Oldershaw
    Discrete Scale Relativity

    • AK says:

      You do yourself a great disservice with your repetitive foaming at mouth declarations calling highly tested and successful theories “pseudoscience” over and over again. Why do you do it? It’s really tiresome and silly, stop it.

      That the SM is best viewed as an sort of effective theory which one would like to embed into something even more predictive – come on, everyone knows that, everyone is working on it.

      The fact that we do not have a theory of everything without free parameters does not mean that the SM is wrong. People also know that the observed Particle might not be the Standard model Higgs, but something that looks very similar. People actively work on looking for deviations and alternatives.

      “econdly, before the LHC came on-line, the predictions for the Higgs mass ranged from about 100 GeV to 800 GeV!!!
      After the fact of finding a bump at 125 GeV THEN they single out the predictions that conform to that result! ”

      It’s called having a free parameter in the theory, and then measuring it. Big deal. OMG did you know that we didn’t know the gravitational constant before we measured it? Therefore Einstein was wrong or what?

      We knew for years that *if* only the SM is realized at the TeV scale, we expect the Higgs to be at the lower end of the LEP allowed region, i.e. near 115 GeV, due to the precisely measured radiative corrections to electroweak precision observables. From what you write, you do not seem to be aware of this.

      Also, what do you even mean by “which may be a fairly boring repeat of the hundreds of other unstable boson resonances already found.”

      Are you aware that all properties of this new boson apart from it’s mass are predicted by the SM, and so far have passed this nontrivial test?

      “No guiding principles = no definitive predictions = pseudo-science”

      This is wrong. Poincare invariance, gauge invariance, renormalizability, locality, those are some nice guiding principles, and they have yielded the most successful and precise scientific theory ever.

      This theory has 20something free parameters, but those have with one exception or so been determined experimentally. Once we had them, the theory from then on successfully predicted an uncountable number of experimental outcomes, apart from very few well-known exceptions like dark matter and the amount of dark energy.

      This is not pseudoscience, get over it!

      • Robert L. Oldershaw says:

        If people would stop saying that the Higgs boson has been discovered, without qualifying information,

        If people would stop saying the the standard model of particle physics provides a complete and totally consistent model of nature,

        then I would not feel obliged scientifically to set the record straight. Until the theoretical physics community returns to the tried and true scientific method, then I will continue to combat the excessive hype of the last 40 years.

        I think the proponents of the old paradigm are married to the paradigm that they have spent decades working on and will defend it literally to the end. On the other hand, new paradigms that challenge the old paradigm are treated as threats and are either ignored or ridiculed.

        Same as it ever was.

        Robert L. Oldershaw
        Discrete Scale Relativity

      • Robert L. Oldershaw says:

        AK: “This theory has 20-something free parameters, but those have with one exception or so been determined experimentally. Once we had them, the theory from then on successfully predicted an uncountable number of experimental outcomes,…”

        Well, nearly the same thing could have spoken by those who were defending the Ptolemaic model of the “heavens” against the coming of the new science.

        If there are guiding principles that are so useful, why are there no definitive predictions of critical, fundamental parameters like the hypothetical “WIMP” mass, or hypothetical “quark” masses? Why can’t the old paradigm retrodict the masses of the stable particles in an elegant way? Why can’t GR and QM be unified?

        We need a radically new paradigm that can make and pass definitive predictions.

        Robert L. Oldershaw
        Discrete Scale Relativity

      • Dilaton says:

        Very well said @ AK

        It is tiresome that Robert has to pop up everywhere to repeat the same nonsense again and again

        Yaaaaaaawn

      • The free parameters in the standard model do not necessarily compare to the gravitational constant. A number of constants of nature are covered by the principle of relativity as explicated by Max Planck – the notion of Planck units of measurement. Gravity is certainly one effect where no further explanation of its scale is required.

        But if I count correctly, Six extra dimensions for Kalauza-Klein charges offer 21 extents and angles to define.

      • Robert L. Oldershaw says:

        Michael J. Burns might consider that according to a completely different paradigm, whose name will go unmentioned but whose initials are Discrete Scale Relativity, the following results are derived from copious observational evidence and have been empirically tested via definitive predictions.

        1. The value of the gravitational coupling factor for atoms and subatomic particles is on the order of 10^38 times larger than the standard Newtonian G, which applies in the case of stellar scale systems.

        2. The corrected Planck scale has M, L and T values that are very close to the M, L and T values of the proton.

        3. The Planck mass defines the “boundary” between ultracompacts with event horizons and horizon-free particles like the electron.

        4. There is no Hierarchy problem or Vacuum Energy Density Crisis with this new form of discrete self-similar scaling for gravitation.

        Now THAT is something completely different. And like I say, this new paradigm has DEFINITIVELY and successfully predicted pulsar-planets, trillions of unbound planetary-mass “nomad” objects, the peak in the exoplanet mass spectrum and the anomalously low planet abundance for lowest mass M-dwarf stars. It delivers more than hype.

        Robert L. Oldershaw
        Discrete Scale Relativity

      • AK says:

        @Michael J. Burns,

        “The free parameters in the standard model do not necessarily compare to the gravitational constant. A number of constants of nature are covered by the principle of relativity as explicated by Max Planck – the notion of Planck units of measurement. Gravity is certainly one effect where no further explanation of its scale is required.”

        I don’t understand this paragraph at all. What constants are covered by what principle and what do you mean by covered?

        “But if I count correctly, Six extra dimensions for Kalauza-Klein charges offer 21 extents and angles to define.”

        I wasn’t really talking about Superstrings at all, but once you open that can of worms, there are potentially much more than 21 parameters in the geometry of Calabi-Yau manifolds, since they are usually have a nontrivial topology, and depending on how complicated the topology is, there are many internal angles (complex structure moduli) and volumes (kahler moduli).
        Think of it like a Pretzel where you can change the angles and sizes of the holes.

        Is this a good thing or a bad thing, I don’t really know. The reality of the solar system turned out to be much messier than either ptolomy or kepler and others would have guessed, but it is of course a bit disheartening to think that all the structures that make up the standard model are just incidental environmental factors. It could be true, though, but hard to test.

      • AK says:

        @RLO

        “If people would stop saying that the Higgs boson has been discovered, without qualifying information,

        If people would stop saying the the standard model of particle physics provides a complete and totally consistent model of nature,”

        There is a huge difference between criticising science reporting and public statements for misrepresentation of the status quo, and roundly criticising the science or theory itself as pseudoscience. If you are angry about how in your eyes the public outreach concerning the discovery of the new boson is not correctly handled, then do that.

        “then I would not feel obliged scientifically to set the record straight. Until the theoretical physics community returns to the tried and true scientific method, then I will continue to combat the excessive hype of the last 40 years.”

        You are not scientifically setting the record straight. The people doing the science are aware of the caveats, and are, as I wrote, actively trying to falsify the Higgs hypothesis.

        “I think the proponents of the old paradigm are married to the paradigm that they have spent decades working on and will defend it literally to the end. On the other hand, new paradigms that challenge the old paradigm are treated as threats and are either ignored or ridiculed.

        Same as it ever was. ”

        You’re making it too easy. Accusing everyone of just sticking ideologically to an old paradigm without good reason is easy. The fact is however, there is no radically different new paradigm that can explain the wealth of data that we have. Nothing that gets even close to the comprehensive accuracy of the SM.

        —–

        “Well, nearly the same thing could have spoken by those who were defending the Ptolemaic model of the “heavens” against the coming of the new science.”

        That new science was able to explain all the same things with less assumptions. Is there a new science which replaces quantum field theory + can correctly predict the humongous amount of data which is in exact concordance with the SM? And no, conspiracy theories are not a substitute for a good physics theory.

        “If there are guiding principles that are so useful, why are there no definitive predictions of critical, fundamental parameters like the hypothetical “WIMP” mass, or hypothetical “quark” masses?”

        This is not controversial at all. Hey, if you find a guiding principle that can be either added to the others we already have, or replaces them, and then makes a successful prediction of the WIMP mass, that’s great. There are many many models out there that try exactly that, and many predictions for WIMP masses. Are they radical enough? Maybe not. Are they true? Experiments still decide that. Is the SM pseudoscience because of that shortcoming? Of course not!

        “Why can’t the old paradigm retrodict the masses of the stable particles in an elegant way? Why can’t GR and QM be unified? We need a radically new paradigm that can make and pass definitive predictions.”

        Those are interesting questions, no doubt. We can only hope that there is such a new paradigm which can do that. It may be that these masses are environmental variables like the parameters of planetary orbits and masses. Kepler first tried to fit those orbits into platonic solids, and failed. It turned out that there is no simple paradigm which predicts them. If we are unlucky the same is true for the parameters of the SM. Still, one should keep trying. None of this is controversial. 99.9% of high energy theorists would agree.

      • Robert L. Oldershaw says:

        Theoretical physicists regularly say that they are aware of problems with the existing paradigms (standard models of particle physics and cosmology).

        They also regularly say that they are very open-minded to new approaches to understanding nature, “but there are no good/viable alternatives” (in their opinion).

        If one makes a serious effort to develop a unfied alternative paradigm for all of nature, which is grounded in and based upon observational facts, and can make definitive predictions by which it can be evaluated scientifically, and passes multiple definitive tests, you would expect your efforts to be well-received, or at least seriously listened to without undue prejudice.

        In reality the author of the new paradigm can expect quite a different reception, and I speak from 35 years of experience.

        What humans say, and how they actually act, are quite contradictory. The degree to which humans can be blind to, or rationalize away, their biases and true underlying agendas, is a wonder to behold.

        Robert L. Oldershaw
        Discrete Scale Relativity

      • @AK, Planck relativity is well worth understanding, as probably you already do under some different label. It is simply that, for each adopted unit of measurement – meters, degrees Kelvin, or seconds, there is a constant of nature that loses its independent value. The typical rhetoric is to allow the unit of mass to determine the gravitational constant, for instance.

        This is very much a relativity theory, since the given values of these particular constants of nature depend on human action. But this is different from relativism, since the coordinate free geometry is invariant, not chosen by humans.

    • Aakash Parikh says:

      People should stop acting as if the discovery of the Higgs Boson (whether it has been discovered at the LHC or not) would be/is at the absolute forefront of physics. The standard model has a wealth of supporting evidence behind it, and the discovery of the Higgs Boson would simply be a reconfirmation that it is right. Many physicists consider the unification of QFT and GR into a theory of Quantum Gravity to be at top priority, and rightly so. Instead of reconfirming a theory that we are all but sure of is wrong in instances of black hole singularities (QFT), we should focus our efforts on new and more promising theories that would expand our understanding of the universe.

  2. David Brown says:

    If the Big Bang developed from a quantum vacuum, then can anyone estimate the number of Higgs bosons involved in such a development? If the multiverse exists, then is there a gravitational field that is partly in one universe and partly in another universe? If the multiverse exists, then is there a Higgs field that is partly in one universe and partly in another universe?

    • AK says:

      I’m not sure that the “number of higgs bosons involved” is a well-defined quantity here.
      For one thing, the vacuum expectation value for example is a coherent state, and thus a superposition of the 0,1,2… particle state.
      Also, we don’t know how big the universe is, and whether it is infinite or not.

  3. dfsdghd says:

    I think that the Nobel committee can award 2 prizes in Physics 2013, one to the G-H-K team and the other to Higgs and Englert.

    I think social media hasn’t really sparked public interest, but just revealed how esoteric this field is.

    I’m late to the discussion, but I wanna talk about your old series on crackpots who were right.

    There were a couple of “crackpots”, who were treated badly, but were correct. And there are also many internet crackpots who are frankly, full o’ shit.

    Now what’s the difference between them? This question is not that hard to answer. It depends on where the idiot is.

    By idiot I mean a non-scientifically minded person.

    There are lots of idiots with dreams of glory and of giving talks and interviews. Now a lot of them are your typical online crank.

    But occasionally, some of these idiots end up at the head of some board (it happens).

    And these idiots who know nuts end up putting down new ideas because they’re too idiotic to review the ideas properly. And they accuse brilliant scientists of being cranks.

    Of course, some scientists fail to communicate their ideas well.

    There is also another kind of idiot, the kind who has no mind of his own; but just takes the position of prominent and mainstream scientists.

    Having too many of these guys is dangerous, as it halts progress unnecessarily. A lot of them have gone through many years of tertiary education and have high positions, but they’re still idiots.

    That said though, education is important. Without knowledge you can’t proceed.

    High school has been doing its best to kill the enthusiasm of students with regards to science, and particle physics is a highly esoteric field, yet there are still a few of these idiots.

    Hope this cleared up a few things.

  4. peterfred says:

    Robert Oldershaw’s criticism of SM (Standard Model?) is a fresh breeze and unfortunately will probably be hardly noticed. Be that as it may I am not very happy with his 35 year-old paradigm shift. Theorists working on the foundation of physics should be careful of that first leap. The theorist Darwin was well aware of the “origin and variety of the specie problem” and was able to select that paradigm shift that turned to be the correct one. Similarly, Copernicus selected that sound paradigm shift that eventually triumphed over that 1500-year-old-Aristotelian theory that could “correctly predict humongous amount of data” as does the widely- accepted and deeply-venerated and well-funded SM. I do not know why I have had the good fortune to select that paradigm shift that bonged me on the head 33 years ago. Even though I did not do much soul searching when I stumbled upon on my paradigm shift I sure wish Robert Oldershaw would consider the vary foundations of his “discreet scale relativity.” To me the vary basis of General Relativity is suspect. How can nature manage to carry out the formidable task of warping space and time two concepts that are kind of nebulous, Fortunately, with my paradigm shift I can personally perform inexpensive table top experiments to test it which finally are beginning to ratify my basic idea as did Galileo’s observation of the phases of Venus did to lend credence to Copernicus’s far-reaching new point of view. But they do not quite do it and I have to perform more of them.

    • Robert L. Oldershaw says:

      peterfred says: “I sure wish Robert Oldershaw would consider the vary[sic] foundations of his “discreet [sic] scale relativity.” To me the vary[sic] basis of General Relativity is suspect. How can nature manage to carry out the formidable task of warping space and time [sic] two concepts that are kind of nebulous, ”
      —————————————————–

      I see the anti-relativist peterfred’s inability to see the merits of a discrete self-similar cosmological pardigm as comforting and encouraging.

      Robert L. Oldershaw
      Discrete Scale Relativity

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