Home Forums Deep Time Journey Forum Matter, Carbon, Mystery and Wonder, a Salon Reply To: Matter, Carbon, Mystery and Wonder, a Salon

Karen Chaffee

Last semester, some of my students wanted to read my salon three post, but I decided it was too hard to read.  So I re-wrote it.  I see I can’t edit the above post, but, what the heck, I’ll just post the edited post.  THIS IS SALON THREE JUST LIKE ABOVE, made more understandable, hopefully, for my students  (and you!!)



The Salon’s entire theme (salon 1-3) is the atom, and the bonding that allows complex molecules to form, and the properties of the electron and nucleus that bring that about. 



In this meeting, we explored how the particles and their properties emerged in the first stages of the Big Bang. It seems to me that the most important thing is how the properties of the electron merged, because I have come to see that chemical binding depends on the electron.  It’s also interesting that no one book or article addresses this—you have to read multiple sources.  This important question does not seem to have captured popular imagination.



The participants agreed that this salon went the best—that’s interesting because I didn’t quite understand the material.  We were able to debate the meaning of what I presented.




Here are the topics we covered.



  1. The force particles
  2. The matter particles
  3. When they emerged.
  4. Symmetry breaking, also called the Higgs mechanism. (If I understand correctly, our universe started without a differentiation among the forces and particles, but the particles and forces as we know them emerged in the first second of the big bang as a result of symmetry breaking.
  5. We learned that the universe is governed by quantum rules (see the salon 2), and was even at the very beginning.


Here is the timeline we discussed, and what emerged.


When the universe was 1 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old.


This is Plank time.  The universe is smaller than an electron at this point.Scientists can’t know what is happening at this point.  If we imagine an even smaller universe, it would be smaller than quantum mechanics allows–a contradiction.  At any rate, whatever ‘it’ was,  the universe emerged out if it, what it was before, we can’t know.



But a tiny slice of time later, the Universe was outside of Plank Time.  All particles and fields had the same values and were identical.  The particles do not have mass.

(By the way, what is a particle?  It is a vibration in a field.  What is a field?  Well, the books I read said a field has a number at every point.  No one in the salon could interpret this!10)


But—we (the salon members) could interpret mass!

  1. What is mass?
  2. It interacts with gravity
  3. It has inertia (DEMO:  we imagined two flying spheres, one made of  marshmallow, and one made of lead.  Which one would take more force to halt with your hand?)
  • It is a form of energy. E = mc   Mass and energy are two manifestations of the same thing.
  1. Relating to above, I had once calculated that the explosion at Nagasaki was the result of 0.7 grams of matter changing to mass.  I held up a peanut—about that much mass that had changed to energy.  There is a lot of energy in mass.



Next we talked about Spontaneous Symmetry Breaking.  (Thisis the Higgs mechanism. )



We tried to understand the Higgs Mechanism:



We envisioned a Mexican Hat Type Roulette wheel with marble. (I had found several pictures which I projected on my computer.)  The Marble balanced on the very top of the Mexican Hat is a wavefunction that could give different solutions, like Schrodinger’s equation.  The Mexican Hat represents energy level. The marble somehow comes to sit on top of apeak (or is it peaks?) like the peak(s) of a Mexican hat.  At this energy, all particles and energies merge, because their energies are so high.  The universe is stuck there, because the barrier on the top of the ‘hat’ holds it.  If the wave function slides off peaks to lower energies the properties of the particles and forces emerge.  We are stuck with result (unless it was all decided from the beginning and it couldn’t happen any other way!).


This is important, because it seems it is here our familiar properties emerge, the ones so important to chemistry and bonding.  We (salon members) were undecided: was the structure of the universe there from the beginning ready for the ‘marble’ to find its level, or was the structure decided in the Symmetry Breaking?  (We envisioned the universe’s wavefunction stuck in the artificial high level, and rolling to a lower level. Was the surface (floor?) of that lower level there all along?  One member seems to think she’d been told in an earlier seminar, that the structure of the universe was there; I had envisioned it being formed now.  At any rate, the properties of the universe were not evident at the high temperatures following Plank time.  At the very beginning there is superforce, superfield; after cooling and symmetry breaking,  all the different forces and particles emerge.


  1. For example—one wavefunction split into 3 entities: the photon, the W and the Z particles.The photon acquires no mass, but acquisition of mass by W, Z breaks symmetry: before symmetry breaking one kind of particles with no mass, after, three different forces, 3 different particles, with different masses.



  1. The Mexican Hat Type Roulette is the underlying shape of our universe. How many peaks does it have, what shape (and was the shape there all long?)?  We don’t know.  At high energy, its shape doesn’t matter.  The theorist ‘infers’ the shape to explain the particles we see.  (However to account for ‘every thing’ we see, theorists must have surface in more than 4 dimensions.)



A Higgs Boson was made every time symmetry was broken.  They are massive!(Compared to other particles, that is)  Scientists found one!!!!  (in a particle accelerator)  July 4, 2012, scientists at CERN announced that they’d found a particle that behaved the way they expect the Higgs boson to behave.



Bottom line as I understand it:  At super high energy, the universe was one pure force.  At lower energies, the universe cooled into a certain structure, which included particles and forces.  Maybe the structure was pre-determined, maybe it was pure chance that we got the forces and particles we did, maybe something in between these two extremes.



We (the salon members) went on:  At approximately 10-34 seconds:  the Universe is filled with a quark-gluon plasma. INFLATION begins (as a result of Higgs).   Here is an explanation (not accepted by all scientists!)  The Mexican hat has a depression in its top.  Our universe’s wavefunction (the marble) gets stuck in it as universe cools.  It is stuck so it has artificially high energy.  The universe is cooling but its wavefunction is stuck at high energy! Things go rapidly awry.   Normally, expansion would dilute the universe’s energy smoothly.  This ‘artificial, “vacuum” ‘ energy does not diminish.  It is like a car with accelerator stuck. The universe doubles its size in a trillion trillionth trillionth of a second, and again, and again, and again.  The energy density also doubles.  The extra, artificial ‘vacuum’ energy becomes, eventually, particles (and galaxies, etc.)  This explains why universe is flat and looks the same all over and has so much density of particles and objects.   In addition, the mechanism of inflation is needed to provide symmetry breaking that gives ‘Spin’ .  Remember, spin is essential to explain the structure of the atom.6  **



How did inflation stop??  In some theories,  tunneling is responsible.  Tunneling is a quantum mechanical phenomenon.  A tiny portion of an object’s wavefunction exists at an unlikely position.  The wavefuction symmetry breaks there, in the unlikely position.  So, the wavefunction of the universe tunnels through the barrier that kept the universe at artificial high energy.



Now we talked about the Higgs field, which we gathered was different from the Higgs mechanism.  The Higgs field gives particles mass.   It affects different particles in different ways.  Photons can slide through unaffected, while W and Z bosons get bogged down with mass.  Particles got mass by interacting with the Higgs field, which occupies the entire universe.  (Like the other fields covered by the standard model, the Higgs one would need a carrier particle to affect other particles, and that particle is known as the Higgs boson, the one that was found. )  Particles that interact with Higgs field have mass, more strongly they interact, more mass.   Sean Carrol has a‘Celebrity Crossing Room’ analogy.  Tom Cruise (a celebrity) would interact with the people in the room strongly and be slowed.  I would not react with them, and could travel freely.  (I would have less mass.)  Why do some particles interact more strongly—we don’t know. 


We talked about the Higgs search.  It was an attempt to make waves in the Higgs field to prove it’s really there.  I was surprised to learn that protons and neutrons and other composite particles (made up of quarks, for e.g.) get most of their mass from other mechanisms.  But electrons and other elementary particles do get their mass from the Higgs field.  If the electrons had no mass, they would not keep their places in atoms, and matter would explode. (see salon 1)  Life as we know it seems to be dependent on our Higgs field.


This is not mentioned much in literature, but it was mentioned in a book by Sean Carrol.    From P. 146Sean Carrol’s book:  The absence of Higgs field would mean that the quarks and hadrons would have slightly different mass (they get some mass from strong nuclear force) and that would affect atoms slightly.  Any change to the mass of the electron would be hugely significant.  Change the mass of the electron just a little, and all life would instantly end. 


Bottom line:  change the Higgs field and carbon would not be the element of life.


Now we moved to ‘Universe is less than one/ten thousandth second old’: 

Hadrons (neutrons, protons) form.  They are made from quarks.   One billion and one baryon forms for every anti baryon.  Obviously this is important for both the atom and the universe.  (If there weren’t an excess of baryons, the anti and regular would have annihilated each other, and we would have no baryons)


To end the salon, we talked about some larger particles that are found in particle accelerators, the particle zoo ‘standard model’.  The mass we see on earth is made of atoms, which are made of protons, electrons and neutrons.  However, scientists have found larger analogs of these in particle accelerators (i.e., they don’t exist except at high energies.)   There are 3 families  (3 flavors. )

  1. proton, neutron electron
  2. Bigger proton, neutron electron
  3. Even bigger proton, neutron electron 3 families!

The important thing is all this emerged very early, and apparently via symmetry breaking.  Before that, all these things were equal.


My important take home message:   The Higgs mechanism seems to have determined the properties of the electron.  The electron is important for chemical bonding.  Why and how did the properties emerge in just the way they did?  Was the structure ‘pre-determined’?  Spin, apparently emerged during  inflation.   Because of the properties that emerged, the position of the electron in the atom is hugely far away from the nucleus.  This is essential for chemical bonding (and life).What happened?  Was it random?  What do scientists know about it that I haven’t discovered?



If you scroll to the fun quiz we took at the end of the salon, you see we imagined an atom made with one of the larger ‘electrons’ from the second family (the muon electron) and the third family, the Tau electron.  We learned that with these massive electrons, the atom would be tiny!  The electrons would all sit close to the nucleus and there would be no bonding.  The exact properties of the electron is so important.



As an appendix, we got a chart with some details about the standard model, which we went through briefly.  The chart was from the internet, anyone can find one, just google  ‘standard model’.  With the chart in front of us, we covered these details:

  1. Fermion vs. Boson
  2. Fermions have spin 1/2 (or 3/2, 5/2) and cannot occupy the same state at the same time.1 They take up room.  (Electrons are fermions.  So are quarks, which make up protons and neutrons.)  THEY ARE THE STUFF WE RECOGNIZE
  3. Bosons have spin 0 (like Higgs), or spin 1 like photon, or spin 2, (graviton) and don’t have to take up space.  They can pile on top of eachother.2,3



  1. FERMIONS CAN BE: Baryon (like protons) vs. Lepton (like electron).


  1. Baryons can feel strong nuclear force. You find them in NUCLEUS. They are ALL made of QUARKS. They tend to be massive.


  1. Leptons do not feel strong nuclear force. THEY DO NOT HAVE TO BE IN NUCLEUS.  If they are charged (like electron) they hover around nucleus.  If they are not charged, like neutrino, they fly off into space and they do not seem to affect our world.  Elections and neutrinos are almost massless.   ELECTRONS MAKE A BIG DIFFERENCE to our world.


  • Bosons carry forces:
  1. Gravity field, gravitons are ripples in field (not needed in or description of carbon 12)
  2. Electromagnetic field: photons are ripples (particles when you look!  See salon 2)
  3. weak, or ‘electro weak’ W+, W-, Z (this are actually the same as photons, only massive.  The acquisition of mass by W and Z happened during symmetry breaking.   (Govern certain decays; carbon-12 doesn’t depend on them much)
  4. strong: ripples are gluons (these are mesons) 
  5. Higgs boson isn’t one of our ‘forces’. It’s field in non-zero in empty space; it broke symmetry and gave us mass.
  6. Every field is there whether or not there are particles interacting with it. We don’t understand them more fundamentally—maybe we will some day
  7. All forces are interactions with a field. Matter is interaction with Higgs field
  8. 3 families (3 flavors)  Only the least massive are seen.  The others are made in particle accelerators. 
  9. With no Higgs field, the three flavor of electron would be identical. Higgs breaks symmetry.


Bottom line:  without the properties that arose during symmetry breaking, the atom would not form as it did.Things that are important for carbon that came about via symmetry breaking.



** spin and the early universe: Fermions and bosons are 2 aspects of a single entity.  But—this meant extra dimensions had to be added to our ‘Mexican hat’.  The quantum arrow can switch direction in extra dimension to change boson into fermion.  Fermions have quantum arrow in an extra space dimension.  Need to turn around twice to face forward. 2  Without exclusion principle, (fermions can’t pile up) electrons would glob onto nucleus.  Quarks would instead of making protons,  would make vast globs of quark stuff.5


OUR QUIZ and some FUN FACTS (we had fun with a quiz, we answered these critical thinking questions):

We used some household objects to show that even though the electron is tiny compared to the nucleus, its wavefunction is huge, but the massive electron in the bigger families would have a smaller wavefunction.  I held up balloons, cotton balls, tic tacs and large sponges, and had salon members guess which wavefunction went with which family.


Fun Facts

  1. Scientists made anti helium!!!!!8 In 1965 : two antiprotons and antineutron combined to form anti helium
  2. Different carbon:

Muon is the ‘electron’ of family 2.   Muons have mass 207 times the mass of electron.

They have made muon atoms—the muon replaced the electron!!!!!  9

(It only lasted 1/500000 of a second.)  HOW WOULD IT BE DIFFERENT?

Tau lepton is 3500 times as massive as electron .   Bigger than proton!

They have not made Tau lepton atoms.

How would atom be different if electron were Tau lepton?



That was our salon 3!  To me, the most important point is that the Higgs mechanism and Higgs field are responsible for the properties of the electron, which is in turn responsible for the carbon atom and life.


Notes:  I used three books plus some web sites.

IssacAzimov:  The Atom

David Lindley:  The End Of Physics: The Myth Of A Unified Theory 

Sean Carrol:  The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World


  1. Heisenberg uncertainty: We can’t have a single point at start of universe singularity. There is a point at which theories no longer work—when size of universe is as small as it can be—further implies that universe is smaller that quantum mechanics allows-a contradiction—called plank time—we can’t understand the universe when it is younger than plank time
  2. Interchanging fermions would leave configuration same but wavefunction must be multiplied by negative 1 and only 0 can be multiplied by negative one and be the same. It has to spin around twice to bring spin to the front, so interchanging it would leave it backwards.   (fermions would be able to ‘pile on’ if our world was 2 dimensions)
  3. P 286 Sean Carrol
  4. spin 0: 1 spin state  spin ½: 2 spins states.  Proton has spin ½and  2 spin states.  (this happens to be important for MRI)Spin 2: 4 spin states.  Etc
  5. Lindley p 178
  6. Lindley p 189

The extra dimensions that give fermions spin ½ means that there must be a partner to the electron that is spin 1, a boson, that doesn’t obey exclusion principal. They are called super partners , Lindly, page 192.  It is very massive because of a un-symmetry in Higgs mechanism, and we don’t see it.  The search for super partners in the most important search now!

  1. Lindley p 190
  2. Azimov p 223
  3. P 241 Asimov
  4. This is more about fields from Sean Carrol : Symmetries give rise to the forces in nature.  How? Guage symmetries—I can change my system at my local point and compare to yours.   It comes with a connection field that lets us compare.    The connection fields are the boson field (the force  carrying fields).  They push particles in different directions depending on how they interact.   For local forces, must   be (almost) massless bosons, so can stretch over long distances