812: Glass

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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I read in this one article that the breaking of electroweak symmetry is the reason we have SOULS. This guy with a degree said so!
Title text: I read in this one article that the breaking of electroweak symmetry is the reason we have SOULS. This guy with a degree said so!


In the beginning of the comic, Megan is trying to break a wine glass like an opera singer. This is a rather famous trick where the vocalist sings at the resonant, or natural frequency of the glass and cause it to resonate more and more until it can no longer handle the stress and breaks - for more info, see the Mythbusters episode about the Earthquake Machine. If the resonant frequency of the glass is outside of the singer's range, then putting some water in the glass will lower its resonant frequency. This effect can be used to play different notes on the rim of a glass by varying the amount of water in it. For example, see this video.

While Megan is trying to break the glass by hitting its resonant frequency, she is actually creating something new. This is similar to particle physics where a new particle can be identified by a resonance peak in the differencial cross-section of a scattering experiment: Known particles plus some very specific amount of energy lead to the creation of a new particle, the Higgs boson. This is represented in the comic with the water and the pitch of Megan's voice creating blood.

The term "God Particle" was coined in 1993 by physicist Leon M. Lederman to describe the Higgs boson because it's "central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our final understanding of the structure of matter, yet so elusive." He originally called it the "goddamn particle", but this was considered offensive, and his editor shortened it to just "God particle", maybe to promote interest in the particle from non-academics too. Many people misinterpret the name to be some kind of link between physics and religion, so physics is getting back at them by playing pranks that resemble famous miracles from Christian tradition:

  • Jesus turned water into wine at the marriage in Cana.
  • The first of the ten plagues in Egypt turned all of the water into blood — the rivers, canals, ponds, pools, and every sort of container holding water.
  • The wine turning into blood is also a reference to the Catholic ritual of Transubstantiation.

Notably, the Higgs Boson was discovered in 2012, 2 years after this comic was released. So at the time, physicists were still looking for the particle.

Notice that, in the last panel, the blood seems to have dripped out of Cueball's glass onto the table and solidified instantly, further proof that physics doesn't apply in this scenario.

The title text refers to the breaking of electroweak symmetry. According to the standard model of particle physics, the electromagnetic and the weak interactions were once unified into a single 'electroweak interaction'. Shortly after the Big Bang, the universe underwent a phase transition that split the electroweak interaction into the electromagnetic and weak interactions that we observe today. The word 'symmetry' refers to the SU(2)xU(1) gauge symmetry that is satisfied by the unified electroweak, but has been spontaneously broken in the phase transition. As with many scientific theories, these can be used incorrectly in order to lend credibility to unrelated and nonsensical claims. This particular case is an instance of "quantum woo." Similarly, a degree can be used to lend the appearance of credibility to a person pushing such an idea, regardless of what field it was earned it or whether said person has any competence. Another comic, albeit much later, about quantum mechanics and souls is 1240: Quantum Mechanics


[Megan is singing, Cueball is staring at a glass of water on a table.]
Cueball: No, but the water in the glass turned to wine.
[Cueball picks up glass]
Megan: Weird.
Cueball: No, wait. This is blood.
Megan: Okay, physics, quit fucking with us.
Voice from above the panel: You stop looking for the Higgs boson and we'll talk.

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Hi, everyone!

I just added a link to a youtube-video and wanted to give a little disclaimer:

I'm in no way affiliated with that person, this is not intended to be advertisement or anything, just a random video I found that illustrates the effect that water in a glass changes it's resonance frequency. If that's not allowed, please remove the link.

Laden (talk) 18:30, 18 January 2013 (UTC)

See below the comments section for what that's about. Always did like how if it's literal then Catholics are canibals... Anonymous 0733, 19 January 2013 (UTC)

We catholics believe we are literally eating the body of Jesus. If that makes us cannibals, then we are cannibals! 02:41, 20 January 2013 (UTC)

It's only cannibalsim if we're right, and if we're right, then God told us so! Either way, we can't be doing anything wrong, because it's either bread or we must due to a divine imperative. Obviously, as a Catholic, I believe I am acting in accordance with truth in recieving the Eucharist, but sometimes it helps those who don't fully understand to have a two-sided hypothetical. 03:35, 5 June 2015 (UTC)

What about the electroweak symmetry=souls thing? Can someone explain that please? 01:49, 12 January 2014 (UTC)

I think it might be a reference to Roger Penrose's Shadows of the Mind, which tried to claim that we have free will because of quantum uncertainty in brain microtubules. -- 01:20, 28 November 2020 (UTC)

So at the point of the creation of matter there's supposed to be this balance between matter (oversimplified: positively charged protons, negative electrons, the stuff we're made of and used to) and antimatter (The opposing charge stuff). That balance is great, but it pretty much implies that the process of matter formation and matter reexplosion (what hapens when antimatter and matter meet) would be this continuous loop. Fact is, we're here, looking at these reactions (or trying to). Therefore, we are the result of an assymetry, perhaps one in every billion particles created is without a partner (visible to us anyway, perhaps it escaped to some negative matter space that's a safe distance away). What caused this apparent imbalance is presently unknown. (Don't, whatever you do, call it a mystery. Not because it's not, but because of the reaction you'll get from all the wrong folks.) Bralbovsky (talk) 00:14, 15 May 2015 (UTC)

Er ... surely the last panel with the voice from above isn't 'Physics', but God. (ie) GOD: "You stop looking for the (God particle), and we'll talk". Which also explains why the water turned to wine then blood. 'Physics' isn't fucking with them ... God is. 04:53, 27 December 2018 (UTC)

The "Is it God? Is it Physics?" issue is reminiscent of the debate about Einstein's references to the "Old One": is he writing about Physics, or God? (Or did he not care to distinguish the two?) See for example https://www.quora.com/What-did-Einstein-mean-by-the-secret-of-the-old-one-in-his-letter-to-Max-Born