An Exclusive Excerpt from Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman’s Beyond the God Particle

It was 20 years ago when Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman coined the term “God Particle” to describe what has since been confirmed as the Higgs Boson, the subject at the center of today’s announcement of the Nobel Prize in Physics. Lederman wrote at the time:

Why God particle?… 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.”

Now that the Higgs Boson has been discovered, Lederman is back with a new book that continues where his previous one left off. Beyond the God Particle (Prometheus Books, 2013), written with Dr. Christopher Hill, talks about “the future of particle physics and the mysteries of the universe yet to be unraveled.”

Below is an exclusive excerpt from the book — keep reading for your chance to win a copy!

A Simple Home-Brew Experiment

Get a beach ball and a straw. Have someone blindfold you. Have your assistant take some randomly chosen small items unknown to you, like a peanut, an acorn, a coin, nuts and bolts, a few other small things, and place them on a table in front of you. Now, while still blindfolded, take hold of the beach ball with both hands. Holding only the ball, try to use it gently as a probe of the small objects on the table, the peanut, the acorn, etc. Can you discern which little object is which, while blindfolded, and coming into contact with them only through the very large beach ball? We would guess not, unless you peeked.

Next, take one end of the long straw and, while still blindfolded, use it to trace out the forms of the same small objects. Can you now discern what these objects are and which is which? When you trace out the objects’ shapes you must use a little thought and a little imagination to try to figure out what each of them is — you’ve become both an experimentalist and a theoretical physicist at the same time — like Enrico Fermi. With enough effort and thought you can probably figure out what little objects were placed before you on the table. Perhaps you can tell a dime from a nickel, and chunk of cauliflower from a golf ball. Go ahead — try it!

One thing is clear, if not obvious, from this experiment: a probe that is many times larger than the object to be probed does not work very well. Holding the beach ball, we doubt you can discern a nickel from a dime, if you can even detect either of them. On the other hand, probes that are much smaller than the object itself allow us to readily resolve the object’s structure — even without seeing it with our eyes. This simple principle holds true in all of the strata of the onion of nature, including the stratum of subatomic particles. To explore the structure of the unknown “something,” we must construct a probe that is smaller than the “something” we seek to study.

This seems at first blush to pose what appears to be an insurmountable barrier to studying small objects, like the innards of an atom or a particle inside an atom. How can we study a particle’s inner structure if all we have are other particles of the same size? Ah-ha! Here is where two of the greatest revolutions of science come to our aid: the quantum theory and Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Essentially, we learn from quantum theory that all particles in nature are also waves. This seems to be a ridiculous and nonsensical paradox, but it is the mysterious and jarring reality of quantum theory. The effects of waves vs. particles for most things don’t show up until we reach atomic dimensions, but they can be seen readily for ordinary light. But to be precise, a quantum state is neither a particle nor a wave — it is both at once!

Small objects can be described by quantum mechanical waves that are associated with the probability of detecting a point-like particle at any point in space and time. That is a mouthful, and the interested reader should grab a copy of our book Quantum Physics for Poets (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2011). However, if you can just “ride the wave” with us for a few more paragraphs, you need only accept that a wave always has a characteristic wavelength. The wavelength is just the familiar distance between two crests or two troughs of a wave, like a water wave. It is the quantum wave-length that tells us how big an object is when it used as a probe.

Now here is a second relevant fact about quantum physics: as we increase the energy of any particle, its quantum wavelength becomes smaller and smaller. When the wave motion approaches the speed of light, then Einstein’s theory of relativity kicks in. If you double the energy of a particle moving near the speed of light, you will halve its quantum wavelength. So, investing a lot of energy in a particle makes its quantum wavelength smaller. This, in principle, allows us to make an arbitrarily tiny probe simply by accelerating a particle to arbitrarily high energies. This is the most important principle underlying microscopes and particle accelerators. The more energy in a particle, the smaller it becomes. And, by the way, you now understand why today’s particle accelerators are very large: it takes a very large accelerator to put a lot of energy into a particle to make it become a smaller probe.

The wavelength of ordinary visible light ranges from, approximately, higher-energy blue light, 0.00004 centimeters (4 × l0-5 cm, about 3 eV per photon; recall that a centimeter is about a half an inch) to lower-energy red light, 0.00007 centimeters (7 × l0-5 cm; about 2 eV per photon). A typical visible particle of a light, a photon, has a quantum wavelength in this range, with an energy of approximately 2 to 3 eV. Objects larger than about 0.0001 centimeters (l0-4 cm) can be readily probed with visible light because they are smaller than the wavelength of the light wave. You need only make a precise optical microscope to do this, and you can see little things that your eye cannot resolve.

Wave and Wavelength. (A) A traveling wave. The wave moves to the right at a speed of v and has a wavelength (the length of one full cycle, from trough to trough, or crest to crest). An observer watching the wave travel by would see a frequency of v/(wavelength) crests, or troughs, passing by per second. The amplitude is the height of a crest above zero. (B) As we increase the energy of a quantum particle-wave, the wavelength becomes smaller.

However, visible light falters when it is used to study structures smaller than this size scale, such as the tiny components found inside the living cell of a biological organism. Visible light is unable to resolve two objects of much less than 0.00001 centimeters (l0-5 cm) or smaller. You now know the reason: these objects are smaller than the wavelength of the visible photons of light — visible photons are as useless as beach balls to probe such small distance scales. No improvement in your microscope optics can ever improve the image. You could spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on atop-of-the-line Bausch and Lomb microscope, and still the tiniest denizens deep inside living organisms will only appear fuzzy or will not appear at all. Crank up the magnifying power of your microscope, and all you’ll get is a bigger fuzzier image. You absolutely cannot see DNA in an optical (light-based) microscope. Visible light is hopeless to use as a probe of an atom at the atomic-size scale of 0.00000001 centimeter (10-8 cm) or less.

Fortunately, at shorter distance scales, even down to the atomic stratum and beyond, electrons become excellent probes. Electrons can be accelerated in a small type of particle accelerator called an electron microscope, giving them more energy. Electrons, too, have a quantum wavelength, as do all particles. Electrons can easily be endowed with kinetic energies of about 20,000 eV (that’s 10,000 times more than a visible photon). This is the energy of acceleration of the electrons in the old TV picture tubes that could at one time have been found in any household but that have now gone the way of the horse and buggy. At this energy the electrons have a quantum wavelength of about 0.000000001 centimeters (10-9 cm), considerably smaller than that of visible light, and they can be used to make images of DNA, a virus, and even resolve individual atoms.

Beyond the God Particle is available on Amazon today.

If you’d like to win a copy of the book, just leave a comment below with the hashtag #GoddamnParticle and I’ll select a random winner next week!

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Xavier

    Based on the excerpt, it seems like somewhat complicated reading. But you’re goddamn right I want to read it! I need to be more natural-scientifically literate anyway #GoddamnParticle

  • Christoph Dorion

    I’ve always wanted to learn more about the #GoddamnParticle, and this looks like a good chance to do so!

  • Sheila Galliart

    #GoddamnParticle.

  • BoGardiner

    He does a great job of putting difficult concepts into clear layman’s language. Kudos.

  • Mitch

    New books, especially those on subjects I don’t know much about (coughphysicscough), are the best. Fascinating material put into language even I can follow, round of applause for Lederman and Hill. #GoddamnParticle

  • Steven Ordaz

    Goddamn! I want this book! #GoddamnParticle

  • WingsThree

    Intellectual stimulation at its finest. I’ve always wanted to learn more about the #goddamnparticle.

  • tony newman

    #GoddamnParticle goddamn is my adjective for the day!

  • Stan

    So, if I win the book, truly something has come from nothing! #GoddamParticle

  • Bonnie Sutherland

    Definitely want to read this book #GoddamnParticle

  • momtarkle

    That book excerpt made my head hurt, but in a good way. #GoddamnParticle

  • SansDeus

    Fascinating #GoddamnParticle

  • pacesetter33

    Looking forward to expanding my horizons while learning more about the #Goddamnparticle :)

  • momtarkle

    Pick me! Pick me!

    What if I comment twice?

    Ha Ha!

    #DogdamnParticle

  • Theory_of_I

    #GoddamnParticle today, godless theory of everything next — Onward!

  • The Other Weirdo

    #GoddamnParticle this excerpt gave me a headache. I want moar.

  • Oranje

    Much like the Standard Model, this all just kind of comes together. I mean the God Particle? From Prometheus Books? I just hope the physicists of the world don’t have to roll that ball up a mountain too many more times to unlock the rest of the secrets. #GoddamnParticle

  • Rationalist1

    Love the analogy of the beach ball and the straw to determine details of small objects. #GoddamnParticle

  • momtarkle

    I can loan you a mower.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    Interesting that they thought an atheist web site was the appropriate place for an exclusive excerpt from a science book. You must be flattered.

    #GoddamnParticle

  • Anth Germana

    #GoddamnParticle is getting added to my reading list!

  • islandbrewer

    I’m still impressed that they were finally able to detect the goddamned Higgs boson!

    For those who may have missed them, Minutephysics had a great series on the Higgs boson.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Uh5mTxRQcg

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ASRpIym_jFM

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6guXMfg88Z8

    #GoddamnParticle

  • James Alan

    #GoddamnParticle – The beachball and the straw is terrific!

  • TimF

    Terrific analogy. I’m still not sure if I like the title “The God Particle”. I’m tired of explaining it to some of my friends, but for others it gives me an opportunity to discuss it intelligently. Not that I know a low about particle physics. #GoddamnParticle

  • David Kopp

    Sweet. I’d love to read the rest of it. Sad when the excerpt ended :( #GoddamnParticle

  • randomfactor

    Definitely looks worth a read. #GoddamnParticle

  • charvakan

    Looks like the authors have a gift of explaining very complex ideas using familiar metaphors … this goes to my reading list. #Goddamnparticle

  • aoscott

    Sounds very interesting, thanks for sharing! #GoddamnParticle

  • antfaber

    I’d like the book. #GoddamnParticle

  • momtarkle

    Finding the God particle proves that atheists are wrong.

  • Itarion

    Frankly, the original name would have made a lesser problem of the name than the current. And, it gives me just another reason to curse! Yay for bad language.

  • http://empiricalpierce.wordpress.com/ EmpiricalPierce

    I would appreciate the analogy of the beach ball more if I wasn’t a pasty nerd who hissed like a vampire at the sight of sunlight. Still a good explanation, though. #GoddamnParticle

  • Wayne D

    Very interesting. First time I’ve seen an explanation on how an electron microscope works. #GoddamnParticle

  • Jeff Wieseman

    Thanks Hemant. More things like this please! #GoddamnParticle

  • Fentwin

    If it makes baby Jesus cry;

    #GoddamnParticle

  • Jason Alexander

    I would love to read this book to my daughter and explain about this #GoddamnParticle

  • chance muscarella

    The whole beach ball/straw analogy really puts things into perspective. #GoddamnParticle

  • Guest

    I named my cat Schrodinger in honor of the monumental leaps we’ve taken
    in the realm of particle physics. I was super excited when I heard of
    the Higgs Boson Particle’s discovery! #GoddamnParticle

  • Phil Barainyak

    I named my cat Schrodinger in honor of the monumental leaps we’ve taken
    in the realm of particle physics. I was super excited when I heard of
    the Higgs Boson’s discovery! #GoddamnParticle

  • waybeyondsoccermom

    Love this story. My son is in college studying to be an astrophysicist.
    #GoddamnParticle

  • Beth Gacevich Waller

    So well written, even I could understand the theories discussed. Eager to learn more. #GoddamnParticle

  • ImRike

    That is so interesting! He has a very nice way of explaining.

    #GoddamnParticle

  • ashground

    This sounds fantastic. If I don’t win it, I’ll probably pick it up. #GoddamnParticle

  • Cam Paterson

    #goddamnparticle. So need to read the rest.

  • Lorne Dmitruk

    An interesting read and a cool experiment to try. #GoddamParticle

  • allein

    It makes me happy when you feature books on good stuff :)

    #GoddamnParticle

  • twinbeech2

    Wow! Thanks Hemant. I’ll order the book today. What a great teacher Leon Lederman is. I hope he and his wife are doing well.

  • Lance Gritton

    this would be a great lesson for middle school or high school students. it can even be used to explain the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle with a little more imagination.#GoddamnParticle

  • Jeremy

    Excellent excerpt. I’ll buy this if I don’t win! #GoddamnParticle

  • momtarkle

    Know thee, all my brethren and sistren who commenteth herein, the third commandment is gonna bounce up and bite your collective asses!

  • momtarkle

    After Hemant awards me the free book, you losers can buy it for $18.71 (plus postage) on Amazon. Just click on the book’s name above the cover picture above…….and, yes, for some of you, I DO think I’m your mother.

  • d_harley_man

    Cool stuff. The simple beach ball analogy makes it quite clear why a smaller probe is needed. #GodDamnParticle

  • catsnjags

    Four readings of A Universe From Nothing and I’m finally starting to “get it”. I wonder how dog eared this puppy would be before the blue light (you know, the high energy type) comes on. #GoddamnParticle

  • Rick Watson

    But Mom,you promised I would get the #GoddamnParticle before anyone else!

  • CalculusKing

    And now Higgs has gotten his nobel, finally! #GoddamnParticle

  • Terri Carey

    I am so glad you posted this! I loved reading the first book. #GoddamnParticle


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