Of Particular Significance

Sean Carroll’s Higgs Book Wins a Big Prize

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

ON 11/25/2013

Congratulations to my friend and colleague Sean Carroll, blogger at Preposterous Universe!  For his book, The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the theoretical idea and experimental discovery of the Higgs field and its particle (the Higgs `boson‘), he has won the 2013 Royal Society Winton Prize!  Not the 3 million that you get for being a famous string or field theorist, or the few hundred thousand that you get for inventing the [Anderson]-(Brout-Englert)-Higgs-(Guralnik-Kibble-Hagen) mechanism, but 25,000 pounds sterling will cover expenses for a few months.  And more importantly, the recognition is well-deserved.  Well done, Sean!

For those who don’t know of him, Sean is a very fine scientist, an expert on the early and current universe, among other things, as well as a very skilled and engaging writer and speaker… and very importantly, he maintains very high standards for accuracy and clarity.  I recommend him highly!

Sean and I were interviewed on a Virtually Speaking Science on-line radio show in February (you can listen to it here) and will be appearing again in early December.  (By the way, I also appeared on this show when the hunt for the Higgs was still on…)

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29 Responses

  1. IMHO there’s an issue with the Higgs mechanism, in that there’s no electron model in the Standard Model. Once this is in place people will appreciate that mass is the flip side of momentum, and that if the Higgs field is responsible for electron mass, it has to be responsible for photon momentum too. So it’s the photon field. That’s the only way you can reconcile it back to E=mc². So what was discovered?

    Sean, I love your droll writing, I laughed out loud at your blog piece, but it might be an idea if you spent that money quick!

  2. Sean writes that the Higgs field fills the whole space. I do not understand this at all. We know, for example, a quantized electromagnetic field. According to the theory (Lagrangian), it also fills the whole space, but is it true? Occupation numbers of the field are different at different distant places, they are not correlated at all. Next to the Sun and in an ultra-cold chamber they are different. The same should be valid for the Higgs field, I guess. We cannot extend its properties to the whole space and make conclusions about its impact to the cosmological things.

    If you look at the Hydrogen atom theory, the electron always accompanies the proton, whenever the latter goes, but can we conclude from this that the electron “fills the whole space”?

    1. I guess what he means with “fills the whole space” is that the Higgs field forms a condensate. From what little I understand about it, a condensate is a quantum state that cannot be understood in terms of particles. It is a truly non-perturbative phenonemon. (I think it is related to what’s called “coherent” states in simpler quantum systems.) The condensate looks the same everywhere. It takes an enormous energy density to make the Higgs field “wiggle” even a bit around its vacuum expectation value, so for example the Higgs condensate next to the sun and in a cold chamber will look the same.

      1. @Kalitvianski and Steiner. Interesting discussion. I would also like to understand the idea of condensate little better. But I do not have problem in believing some field or wave function to be nonzero everywhere. E.g classical electric field of a static charge vanishes only at infinity which is an imaginary point anyway. Also electron wave function psi(x) in an atom would be non-zero all the way to infinity and thus you could say it is spread out. In practice one truncates after few Bohr radii, but in principle (!) it is non-zero everywhere. Now the Higgs field is more subtle because its average value is non zero and we do not know the source. But other than this peculiarity it is like any other field which is non zero everywhere.

        1. See kayshap, once you discover an underlying principle one can easily explain a wide gamma of seemingly disparate phenomena.It is in those undiscovered fundamental principles of nature wherein lies the new physics.

        2. @Kashyap Vasavada: The real understanding is different from yours – the boundary conditions dictate the region where the field is non zero. They (BC) are real. And those boundary conditions are our simplified solutions to the actual field-matter complicated interactions. Thus, it is much more correct to think of quanta (field excitations) as of quasi-particles in specific compound systems. The quasi-particle world is much more richer than the particle data group can imagine.

  3. A truly ‘fine scientist’ knows the difference between a field of math and an actual physical field. At best, a field of math can attempt to model or describe some traits of a physical field, but it can never inform a physical fields behavior…unless you believe in a form of mysticism called Mathematical Platonism. As of now, the identity of the incredibly short lived large particle being called the ‘Higgs Discovery’ using Monte Carlo data manipulation methods is tenuous at best, as the purely theoretical properties of an imagined Higgs particle have not yet been demonstrated in the actual discovered particle. Sean should have waited for actual confirmation of what was actually discovered instead of becoming an advocate for what he would wish it to be.

  4. IMHO the source of infinities in physics stems from the undefined concept of 1/0. This problem would vanish if we accept that nature does not have a zero state i.e non zero displacement, non zero energy etc. The Higgs field becomes a natural consequence of this principle.

    1. If there is a minimum displacement in spacetime then via the uncertainty pricinple there is must be a corresponding maximum four momentum. By the same token if there is a minimum four momentum there must be a corresponding maximum displacement in spacetime.From here we find boundary conditions from which we apply canonical quantization procedures to find the eigen states of spacetime and the quantum vacuum

    2. We then find spacetime to have 1X 10^60 eigen states. The minimum energy =hH where h is planks constant and H the Hubble constant. The highest energy state is of course the planck energy. The minimum displacement in spacetime being planck scale spacetime and the maximum being the Hubble radius and Hubble time.

  5. It’s great that educators are rewarded like this because the current generation of physicists would be nothing without them. Even today, I read the Feynmann Lectures, Gravitation by Thorne, Misner, Wheeler, Electricity and Magnetism by Purcell with awe at the amazing teaching talents of these authors: Their books actually have diagrams! pictures! history!

    Many books nowadays take a very dry approach to teaching because the author, although a great researcher, has little experience in teaching.

  6. “What is so special about the Higgs boson? As Sean Carroll eloquently explains, without it we wouldn’t understand how elementary particles could have mass at all.”

    Indeed, according to our (right, of course) gauge idea, all particles are massless. What a discrepancy between our right idea and the massive observable world! No, the Higgs mechanism is not a patch, but a true insight into the unknown of the massive nature. And let us not forget that our current description is not only right, but also unique, ultimate. The proof? Money generously given for that. And money, you know, is the ultimate, decisive thing.

    1. I think nobody claims that the Standard Model is the ultimate description of nature, quite the contrary. Also the SM has been extensively confirmed by experiments – which cost money, for sure -, not by the money itself. You cannot fool nature with money.

      What may initially look like a patch (“It seems we need ingredient H to make our theory consistent.”) can turn into a prediction (“Hm, but if there is H, there must be an observable thing h with peculiar properties …”), which in turn can become a triumph of science if this “h” with said properties is then actually found, as it happened for the Higgs particle. For example, Neptune’s discovery was predicted because a new planet was needed to “patch” inconsistencies in the orbit of Uranus. Does that make Neptune less real or spectacular?

      The Higgs boson is fascinating for other reasons, too. It is the first observed (apparently) elementary particle with spin 0 and to my knowledge also the first that is thought to correspond to excitations of a quantum field around a non-zero expectation value.

      1. Thanks, Edwin, for your answer. Let us go farther. Let us say Neptune is necessary to give all the other planets masses they have. That would be a spectacular mechanism/prediction indeed.

        As you may have noticed, I do not buy bare particles either just exactly for the same reason – they are patches of a wrong (self-acting) construction. But if you are inclined to believe in fairy tales and their uniqueness, then nothing can help.

        1. Vladimir,

          Perhaps you are right with regard to Higgs role in being responsible in any way for the mass of other particles…but then I imagine the very presence of this spin 0 particle must drive you nuts?! How do you account for it? Do you feel it is just a coincidence that nature has served up a particle with the very properties physicists were looking for?

          1. No, I do not consider it a coincidence, I consider it an illusion or delusion, whatever. When you are madly looking for something (or, better, traces of something) in a strong background noise, you will find it.

            I remember my own experience with and old TV set without antenna. It showed black-and-wite random flakes popping up and disappearing shortly after in a random order. It is a background (white) noise without any signal in it. But I could easily tune my perception to see whatever I wanted, for example, a rotating flakes (clockwise or anti-clockwise), falling rain, my moving forward or backward through stars, etc., and the rest was a background nearly as good as the original one because for making my illusion I needed few flakes taken away and arranged in my favourite way.

            You not only will see what you want, you also will miss what it is in reality because of your bias.

          2. @Vladimir: That is exactly why experimental physicists use sophisticated statistical tools instead of judging histograms by the eye.

            Also you are presuming that experimental physicists desperately want to confirm the standard theories of their theoretical colleagues. I very much doubt that. I think most experimentalists would just love to find something new that makes theorists drop out of their chairs.

            Both excluding the Higgs boson or finding an unexpected new particle would have been much more spectacular discoveries, the latter probably winning some Nobel prices for experimentalists, so by your psychological theory one of those should probably have happened.

            1. Dear Edwin, I understand that experimentalists are less biased that theorists. Still, they use theoretical models to process (reduce) the data and to decide what is a background noise and what is a “signal”, especially if they are looking for some “signatures”. Let us wait for more data and for soberer conclusions.

          3. Vladimir,

            Well, I guess it was quite a waste of time, money and energy to construct, maintain and now upgrade the LHC. We simply could have given physicists a Rorschach Inkblot image and they all would have screamed: “It’s the Higgs”.

            I think you are greatly underestimating both theoretical and experimental physicists abilities to determine that there is indeed a spin 0 boson at around 125 GeV. Doubting that this particle is a manifestation of a field that gives certain other particles mass is one thing – but doubting that there is anything there at all, is I think, delusional on your part.

      1. Can you do a post on what your book is going to be about, the audience it’s targeted at?

        There’s a lot of people here interested in this stuff, and know what type of book appeals to the market, and what doesn’t; which will make you all the richer and famous 😉

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A decay of a Higgs boson, as reconstructed by the CMS experiment at the LHC


A quick reminder, to those in the northwest’s big cities, that I will be giving two talks about my book in the next 48 hours:

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