Tag Archives: Large Hadron Collider

That particle again

This week sees the launch of another book on the Higgs Boson. This one is by the cosmologist Sean CarrollThe Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World.

I found Carroll’s last book From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time excellent so am looking forward to this one. he has a real gift for explaining the complex science of cosmology and particle physics clearly for the lay person.

In this short promotion video he describes the aim of the book

Sean Carroll: The Particle at the End of the Universe

See also: The Excitement Grows!

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Why the Higgsteria?

The whole world seemed to be celebrating the CERN announcement about the Higg’s particle last night. But, of course, very few of us really understand what it is and what it does.

The UK Guardian has a short video, What is the Higgs boson?, explaining the Higgs particle in relatively simple language. The presentation is by Guardian journalist Ian Sample who has also written a book about it – Massive: The Hunt for the God Particle.

Have a look – it’s only 4 and half minutes.

Video link: What is the Higgs boson? – video | Science | guardian.co.uk.

The trouble with physics?

Scientists working on the Atlas experiment at the Large Hadron Collider ( Photo: REX FEATURES & The Telegraph)

No, this is not an in-depth critique of string theory along the lines of Lee Smolin’s The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next or Peter Woit’s Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law. It’s more along the lines of how do you know when a physicist is joking?

I think part of the attraction of modern physical theories and speculations are their non-intuitive nature. I buy that – and don’t find myself rejecting ideas just because they violate “common sense.” But I have often through that this non-intuitive nature does leave the field wide open to bullshit.

OK – I am aware that pseudo-science uses this to it’s own advantage to sell products and ideologies. But here’s a more practical problem I face – who do you believe when you read stories about physical discoveries on or around April 1 every year?

For example – I am pretty sure that the CERN Newsletter editors were pulling my leg when they reported – CERN scientists report sidereal influence on the behaviour of antimatter:

CERN scientists today reported an unexpected effect in the behaviour of antiprotons in the ALPHA experiment’s particle trap. ALPHA traps antiprotons from the laboratory’s Antiproton Decelerator and mixes them with positrons to form antihydrogen.

The experiment’s ultimate goal is to perform spectroscopic measurements on antihydrogen atoms in order to investigate nature’s preference for matter over antimatter. ALPHA reported an important step forward last month with the announcement that they had succeeded in changing the internal state of antihydrogen atoms using microwaves.

One of the key stages in CERN’s antimatter programme is slowing the antiprotons down as much as possible, a process known as cooling. In all measurements to date, the ALPHA experiment has cooled the antiprotons to a temperature of just 0.5 Kelvin. However, when the experiment ran on Monday 26 March, they observed antiprotons cooled to 0.4 Kelvin: in other words, they were moving more slowly than usual. Another curious phenomenon was that the temperatures of the antiprotons followed a Poisson distribution instead of the usual Gaussian. The following day, the antiprotons were back to their normal temperature of 0.5 Kelvin.

“We took a long time to figure this one out,” explained collaboration spokesperson, Jeffrey Hangst. “On Monday, the antiprotons were particularly cold, but they responded well to microwave warming, allowing us to conclude the run. On Tuesday, our antiprotons were back to normal.”

The solution came from an unexpected direction.

“There was something else strange about Monday’s run,” said Hangst. “Our run coordinator Niels Madsen arrived an hour late, which is very uncharacteristic behaviour for him.”

This provided the clue the ALPHA collaboration needed.

“I’d forgotten that the time changed over the weekend,” said Madsen. “And of course no one had told the antiprotons that the clocks went forward either, so they were just a little more slow than usual. By the time we got to Tuesday, they’d adjusted to Central European Summer Time.”

But what about this from Jon Butterworth – a physics professor at University College London and a member of the High Energy Physics group on the Atlas experiment at Cern’s Large Hadron Collider. He’s normally a serious guy but reported in his Guardian Blog Life and Physics recently (April 1 actually) that “a bug in the software used to model the detectors at the Large Hadron Collider could have been covering up evidence for extra space time dimensions” (see  First evidence for string theory at the Large Hadron Collider):

Complex software models are used to understand the results from the Large Hadron Collider. These include simulations of the particle physics in the proton-proton collisions, as well as of the material and geometry of the detectors and the strength of the various magnetic fields. As more data are accumulated, the required precision of this software increases.

A recent review recommended that the number of decimal places used to represent numbers in the software should be increased. This means all mathematical constants such as e and pi, as well as physical constants and the measured dimensions of the detectors. So far, so routine. But when adding more precision to pi, a strange effect was noticed. The alignment of charged particle tracks across detector boundaries actually got worse when a more precise value was used. In addition, the agreement between simulation and data also got slightly worse.

This really should not happen – more precision should mean better alignment and better agreement.

Boring scientists say this is probably evidence that some physicists don’t know how to write proper code. However, string theorists have pointed out that a firm prediction of string theory is the existence of extra space-time dimensions. In a space which is curved into a higher dimension, the apparent value of pi can deviate from that seen in real life. And thus the LHC may have proved that they were right all along. More data are needed before we can be sure.

Well, I don’t know. Sounds as credible as most of the stories coming from the LHC and the scientists working there.

Perhaps a hint that the story is an April Fool’s joke comes from the last sentence:

Less welcome news for CERN is that since they have been near to the beams for two years, the values of pi used in those parts of the ATLAS which were built in the UK are now hot, and therefore as of today will attract VAT.

Or perhaps it’s only the last sentence which is the joke?

That’s the trouble with modern physics. When should we take it seriously.

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Higgs and homeopathy

With all the news lately about the Large Hadron Collider and evidence for the Higg’s field I had to laugh at this little twitter exchange I saw this morning. It was apparently sparked by an advocate providing a quantum proof of homeopathy.

Cultural effect of The Big Bang Theory

I have often thought that we just don’t get enough science in our popular culture. Perhaps people would understand and be more supportive of science, for example, if we had a regular TV soap opera based around the life and work of scientists.

So I feel a little vindicated by the news reports that there is a current resurgence of interest in physics among A-level and university students in the UK. And  The Big Bang Theory, a California-based comedy that follows two young physicists, is being suggested as an important factor (see Big Bang Theory fuels physics boom).

Some students are saying as much:

Tom Whitmore, 15, from Brighton, acknowledged that Big Bang Theory had contributed to his decision, with a number of classmates, to consider physics at A-level, and in causing the subject to be regarded as “cool”. “The Big Bang Theory is a great show and it’s definitely made physics more popular. And disputes between classmates now have a new way of being settled: with a game of rock, paper, scissors, lizard, Spock,” he said.

And so are some of the experts:

Institute of Physics (IoP) spokesman, Joe Winters, said: “The rise in popularity of physics appears to be due to a range of factors, including Brian’s public success, the might of the Large Hadron Collider and, we’re sure, the popularity of shows like The Big Bang Theory.”

Alex Cheung, editor of physics.org, said: “There’s no doubt that TV has also played a role. The Big Bang Theory seems to have had a positive effect and the viewing figures for Brian Cox‘s series suggest that millions of people in the UK are happy to welcome a physics professor, with a tutorial plan in hand, into their sitting room on a Sunday evening.”  [Prof. Brian Cox who has been fronting a series of very popular science documentaries Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of the Universe.]

Brian Cox

Apparently there has been a 10% increase in the number of students accepted to read physics by the university admissions services between 2008-09, when The Big Bang Theory was first broadcast in the UK, and 2010-11. Applications for physics courses at university are also up more than 17% on last year.

Jim Al-Khalili

I know documentaries of the type presented by popular scientists like Brian Cox and Jim Al-Khalili (who has made Secret Life of ChaosChemistry: A Volatile History, Science and Islam,  Atom,   Shock and Awe: The Story of Electricity, and others) are invaluable in motivating and inspiring young people. But there is something special to be said for soap operas. And The Big Bang Theory is a very entertaining and effective soap opera.

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Ridiculing ridiculous science commentary

Sometimes it’s pointless to debate rationally with critics. When their approach and arguments are ridiculous it may be better to ridicule them rather than treat them seriosuly.

Simon Jenkins, Guardian columnist

It seems some British scientists have decided to do this with one of The Guardian’s columnists, Simon Jenkins. The last straw was a silly article of his Martin Rees makes a religion out of science so his bishops can gather their tithe. In this he made childish attacks on The Royal Society and its President Lord Martin Rees, the Large Hadron Collider, the BBC for running science programmes, the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation, investment in science education, science advise on the H1N1 flu virus, nuclear power and “mad cow” disease, and so on.

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Journalists create world’s first artificial news story!

An example of a breaking news intro graphic
Image via Wikipedia

I guess this little joke had to come. After the one about Venter’s new synthetic life form disapproving of God playing scientist (see God, stop ‘playing science’ ) we now have from the same source (NewsBisciut) breaking news of the world’s first synthetic news story about DNA (Journalists create world’s first artificial news story):

Journalists in the UK have succeeded in creating the world’s first synthetic news story about artificial DNA.

The hacks developed the outline of a normal piece of reporting about a tentative, abstruse scientific discovery, and transplanted into it some organic tripe about an unprecedented scientific breakthrough which will change the world and possibly wipe out all human life.

Up to now, journalists have only been able to report on scientific news with rigorous accuracy, unwavering attention to detail and a complete absence of hyperbole. But the new technology means that there is now no theoretical limit to the quantity of hysterics which can be generated by the slightest scientific advance, however minor.

‘This has never been seen before, and it’s no exaggeration to say that it’s the greatest single moment in the history of the media,’ said Professor Brian Jenkins, tabloidologist at the University of Suffolk, ‘even more momentous than the destruction of the universe by the Large Hadron Collider, the disappearance of Jupiter or the creation of Dolly the Sheep. You can read all about it in tomorrow’s papers.’


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Clear science communication

Book review: Am I Making Myself Clear?: A Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Public by Cornelia Dean

Price US$13.57
Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: Harvard University Press; 1 edition (October 30, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0674036352
ISBN-13: 978-0674036352

I bet you can name some good science communicators. People like Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Carolyn Porco, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Lawrence Krauss among others

They stand out, don’t they? Probably because the rest of us are bad science communicators. We picture scientists as ponderous, given to continual qualification, lovers of jargon, bad speakers (as well as bad dressers) and not interested in communicating with the non-expert anyway. We don’t even want to communicate effectively with fellow scientists for a different speciality or research area.

Perhaps that’s a bit harsh. There are many scientists, particularly younger ones, who recognise science communication is important. Some of these probably consciously try to pick up relevant communication skills, and/or practise these in internet and other public settings.

Perhaps more importantly, there are many scientists who recognise science communication is important.

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Car pool, string theory and human genetic history

I have been enjoying a weekly internet TV show produced by Robert Llewellyn, the actor who portrays Kryten 2X4B-523P in the popular TV series Red Dwarf. Its called Car Pool. And the idea behind it is novel and very successful.

Basically it’s a half hour interview with a personality from the worlds of science, theatre, televisions and technology. The intriguing feature is that the interview takes place while Llewellyn drives the subject somewhere in his car. The produces a very informal, even laid back, and friendly interaction. And it’s surprising how much information can be conveyed in this format.

The videos are available for viewing or downloading at Llewtube and Llewtube on blip.tv. If you follow Llewellyn on twitter you can also suggest questions for upcoming interviews.

The video below, this is car pool, includes snippets from the series

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What is the Large Hadron Collider?

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN starts up next Wednesday. I have been meaning to post about this but think this video below gives a better outline than I could. (I’m all in favour of using novel and popular methods to communicate science). The rapper is Katherine McAlpine (known as alpinekat). She has a day job as a science writer.

Large Hadron Rap

LHC gets its own rap song Scientific American news.
Let the Proton Smashing Begin. (The Rap Is Already Written.) New York Times article.

Time Lapse video of ATLAS experiment assembly

See also:
LHC First Beam Photos
CERN Twitter
CERN Podcast – Dr. Brian Cox takes guests around the LHC discussing its construction and what discoveries are expected.
Guardian News and comment on the world’s most ambitious scientific experiment: the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European laboratory for particle physics near Geneva.
Beautiful photographs of the LHC at the Big Picture.
Lecture on the LHC by Robert Orr, John Ellis – European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).
Live Webcast of LHC first beam on 10 September.

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