Tag Archives: CERN

The science of consciousness

TEDxCERN_headerHere’s a fascinating talk on the science of consciousness given at the TED talks in CERN.*

The talk on consciousness and the brain is by philosopher John Searle. He is  Slusser Professor of Philosophy at University of California, Berkeley, and the winner of the 2000 Jean Nicod Prize and the 2004 National Humanities Medal. His books include The Mystery of Consciousness and Mind, Language And Society: Philosophy In The Real World among others.

Consciousness & the Brain: John Searle at TEDxCERN

It’s a great video – he crams a lot in and it’s worth watching several times.

*Videos of the talks are up now at the TEDxCERN web site.

Thanks to and his Guardian blog Life and Physics.

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The beginning (of the universe) for beginners

This video – The beginning of the universe, for beginners  – is the premiere of a series of five, first of their kind, collaborations between CERN and TED Ed. The series covers the origins of the universe, dark matter, antimatter, big data and the Higgs boson. The other four animations will premiere at TEDxCERN, another first of its kind event, on 3 May from 2pm – 8pm CEST, and the animated lessons will be available on ed.ted.com starting on 3 May. The webcast will be available to the public on the TEDxCERN website.

The beginning of the universe, for beginners.

Credit: The beginning of the universe, for beginners

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.

Cost of scientific research – and political naivity

I ended up immersed in the internet activity around the CERN physics seminar on the Higg’s boson last night. It was an unprecedented phenomenon.

However, amidst all the fascination, celebration and humour at the (possible) confirmation of the Higg’s particle I was sidetracked into a twitter debate with a local politician. In what appeared to be the sole negative tweet of the night she lamented to cost of the research involved: “the cost is depressing, $4 billion or thereabouts, only if it makes a real difference.” In later tweets she referred to the “cost to some other priority”, “the sacrifice it required,” “what is not done, who is not fed, who is not saved,” “tradeoffs,” “trying to justify this cost to the people I work for,” and “you can’t deny that something else is sacrificed in the choice [of research].”

Her comments were quickly criticised by a number of local people and, in the end, I think she realised she had made a political mistake. (Made worse by her being one of the co-leaders of her political party). But I really hope she learns something from the experience. It worries me that we have political leaders in this country who have such a naive understanding of science and the issues involved when it comes to considering science funding alongside other priorities.

The multidimensional crossword metaphor

Science is like a multidimensional crossword puzzle

In my post Scientific knowledge – reliable but not certain I quoted philosopher of science Susan Haack. She uses the metaphor of a crossword puzzle to illustrate the complexity, messiness and provisional nature of scientific knowledge. In effect last night we were seeing that in  process. The Higg’s particle had previously been “pencilled in” – last night they started to ink it in. Something is definitely there but we are still unsure of all the intersecting “words.” But we have some better clues.

The crossword metaphor is also very useful to illustrate to complexities involved when it comes to considering funding priorities in science. We just can’t isolate one “word,” (or research area) from another “word.” The influence of a “word” extend not only to neighbouring “words” but right around the puzzle – which in this case is very large and multidimensional.

Fundamental and practical research are interdependent

This means that so-called “blue sky” research just can’t be isolated from research which is directly related to a current problem. Discoveries made in our understanding of subatomic physics influences elaboration of our knowledge in chemistry, biology and social communication. It is naive to approach research funding as if the discoveries made in such “blue sky” areas have nothing to do with the research and possible discoveries in agriculture, health, teaching and communication. Or in future technology which may radically improve our quality of life.

One could rake up all sorts of relevant examples of how past blue sky research has influenced our life today, or how it may influence it in the future. But consider this. Should we argue that the expenses involved in launching satellites, establishing a human presence in near earth space, etc., are so large we can’t justify them? (Because they are large). And in the next breath argue that climate change issues are so important that the money “saved” be invested in climate change research, or improving food production in developing countries? One has to be pretty naive not to see the obvious connection between near earth space research and climate research. And the influence of climate on food production. Many of the problems  causing uncertainty in our understanding of climate change will only be answered by satellite observations.

When I started my research career I decided to choose areas like agriculture where it seemed possible to have a more direct influence on overcoming poverty and improving the quality of life. But as a chemist I have seen throughout my career that my research also depended on the previous (and sometimes current) findings of chemical and physical research considered fundamental or “blue sky.” Clearly such research also contributes, even if only “indirectly,” to resolution of practical problems and improvement of our quality of life. It would have been silly for me to argue that social investment in fundamental research should be stopped and the money diverted into my research area!

This does not mean that each researcher should  pick research interests at random in the belief that it all helps. Of course they should follow their particular interests and ideological or moral desires.

Balancing research funding priorities

Nor does it mean that governments should blindly just throw money at scientific research without any prioritising. Just that politicians should recognise the inter-related nature of research areas and take a responsible approach which does not cause underfunding of either fundamental research, applied research, or urgent humanitarian research areas.

As for the CERN research. The technology involved is huge and ground-breaking. Of course that is expensive. So expensive that governments decided to fund the research internationally. Spreading the costs has enabled governments to contribute without diverting important funding away from other areas. Funding of the International Space Station is also international for the same reason.

I think simple consideration of the history of CERN will show governments have been responsible in their funding. They have not been robbing Paul to pay Peter but paying them both – in a balanced and democratic way. Politicians who lament that international investment and cite other areas they think more deserving are ignoring that history. They are also showing ignorance about the nature of scientific knowledge.

And come on. Get real! The time to debate priorities is during the early stage when funding decisions can be balanced. Not at the time the rest of the world is celebrating a magnificent human achievement.

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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.

What’s this about cosmic rays and global warming?

This old argument is getting another airing among the internet climate change contrarian/denier ghetto. Briefly it claims that humans have nothing to do with current climate change – it’s all caused by the sun! Specifically the influence of cosmic rays originating from the sun on formation of clouds in the atmosphere.

Of course things are never that simple – but that doesn’t stop those wishing to justify a preconceived position. And the sudden new evidence which is being touted arises from a recent paper from CERN  Role of sulphuric acid, ammonia and galactic cosmic rays in atmospheric aerosol nucleation published in Nature. The denier ghetto has come out with headlines like New CERN “CLOUD” Study Makes the Al Gore Climate Change Forecasts Obsolete! Or locally the NZ climate change denier blog Climate Conversation asserts CLOUD proves cosmic ray link!

The reasearch findings in no way justifies these headlines. And even veteran denier Richard Treadgold at Climate Conversations has backed away to some extent from his headline. Nevertheless it ahs him demanding that New Zealand review its Emmisions Trading Scheme and he thinks that “warmists” are responding by “rushing to the exits”!

Yeah, right!

What are the research findings?

Potholer54 has produced a nice video summary of the facts around this research Are cosmic rays causing global warming? It’s well worth watching

Another brief video, starring Jasper Kirkby the lead scientists in this work,  also provides more information on this work  Kirkby on Cosmic Rays

As Kirkby points out the work is only the first step in this research and says nothing about the influence of cosmic rays on cloud formation. This initial work really only reports the influence of chemicals and cosmic rays  on nucleation of chemical particles which may eventually lead to some cloud formation.

As for headlines like CERN: ‘Climate models will need to be substantially revised’ Kirkby points out we are a long way from that – at least ten years before the influence on models can even be considered.

It’s certainly interesting research, but only one step in considering climatic effects. We still have a long way to go to understand how clouds and other aerosols influence climate change.

And it is the nature of research that we should be ready for all sorts of tangential leads produced. For example, perhaps this research may in the end say more about the influence of human activities on climate through the emission of all sorts of chemicals not yet considered and their role in cosmic ray induced particulate formation in the atmosphere.

Thanks to Richard Christie and Cedric Katesby for videos.

See also: For a more detailed discussion of Kirkby’s research watch this  video of one of his lectures (65 min): Jasper Kirkby: The CLOUD experiment at CERN.

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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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