Comments Off Posted on Sunday 29 November 2009 at 5:36 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup

Universities must do more to stop formula stories

This week Times Higher Education have an interesting article about your favourite and mine, the “formula for” story. Of particular concern is the move by PR companies to use students to advertise their dodgy equations, such as the formula for a perfect night out from last month.

The concern is that students could be damaging their scientific reputations by taking part in this kind of PR activity, and that universities should take more care in publicising the work through their press offices. It turns out that Leeds University, home to “VKendologist” Phillippa Toon, were happy to facilitate media interviews for the nonsense formula story. A bit worrying, really.

Test-tube burgers, anyone?

Would you eat meat grown in a petri dish? Scientist in Holland have produced lab-grown meat for the first time – though they haven’t tasted it yet.

Cells taken from the muscle of a live pig grew into sticky muscle tissue, which doesn’t sound very appetising because the meat needs exercise to give it a more normal consistency.

I’d certainly welcome lab-grown meat, as long as it tasted like the real thing. It would take much less space and resources than breeding pigs or cattle, and animals wouldn’t have to die before we tuck in. I’m sure many people will be horrified by the idea, but a meat cell is a meat cell, wherever it grows.

Oh nos!

It had to happen eventually. The lolcats have got in to the Large Hadron Collider, and I think we all know how it’s going to end:

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1 Comment » Posted on Sunday 22 November 2009 at 3:52 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Right, Inventions & Technology, Physics, Psychology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

A busy week has meant a pretty poor showing on Just A Theory, but hopefully a packed roundup will make up for it:

LHC a-go-go

The Large Hadron Collider is finally up and running again! As our CERN correspondent Emma mentioned last month, scientist in Geneva have been working on restarting the LHC after it had to be shut down last year. Their hard work paid off on Friday, and proton beams are now successfully colliding in the 27km-long ring of the world’s largest experiment. Now for the science!

What if the Earth had rings?

Speaking of rings, check out this short video showing how it would look if Earth had its own set, like Saturn.

At the equator they appear to be a thin line through the sky, but further north or south they make an amazing sight, lighting up the sky even at night. Anyway we can build these things and cover them in solar panels or something?

Field less players to win the World Cup

It seems that having a large squad to choose from can actually be a hindrance when it comes to top football. You might think fielding substitutions lets mangers pick the best players for every situation, but research shows that sticking with the top 11 is the key to success.

Bacteria that can detect landmines

Scientist at the University of Edinburgh have developed a strain of bacteria that glow green near explosives. By mixing them with a colourless solution, they can be sprayed from the air on to suspected landmine fields, turning the ground green if mines are detected.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 8 November 2009 at 2:28 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Physics, Weekly Roundup

Large Hadron Collider taken down by bread

Earlier this week the Large Hadron Collider suffered yet another setback, when it was dive-bombed by a bird carrying a piece of baguette. You just can’t make it up.

The rogue bit of bread caused a short circuit in part of the LHC’s above-ground electronics, leading to an automatic shutdown of the giant ring’s cooling system. Thankfully the LHC was only knocked offline for a few days this time, and systems are now running normally. Lets just hope the scientists at Geneva have invested in a couple of scarecrows.

Eating fast makes you fat – now we know why

It’s often said that eating too fast will lead to putting on weight, because your brain doesn’t have enough time to catch up with your full stomach. Now, new research has found a possible physiological explanation for why this might happen.

Dr Alexander Kokkinos of the Laiko General Hospital in Athens found that eating too quickly can slow the release of two hormones from the gut, PYY and GLP-1. Volunteers were given 300ml of ice cream to eat at different rates, and those who ate the slowest had the highest hormone concentration.

X-rays top the charts

Back in June I reported on a Science Museum survey to pick the most influential scientific infection in their collection. The results are in, and it seem X-rays take the top spot, followed by penicillin and the DNA double helix.

It’s a bit of an odd choice, I think. In my original post, I went for the Pilot ACE Computer, because it was the first multi-tasking computer. It seems others disagreed though, because it came in at a lowly seventh place. Still, X-rays over penicillin? I’ve taken antibiotics far more than I’ve been X-rayed, as have most people I would’ve thought. Strange.

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1 Comment » Posted on Saturday 17 October 2009 at 5:49 pm by Emma Stokes
In Physics

Last week whilst traveling to work, I noticed huge plumes of steam rising over the Geneva jura – just one sign of things beginning to start up again here at CERN.

The source of the steam are the huge cooling towers required by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). A complex cryogenic system sits in the tunnel of the LHC in order to cool the tunnel and equipment to 1.9 kelvin. This is no mean feat, as 1.9 kelvin equates to -271C or -456F which is much colder than outer space (around 2.7 kelvin). However, the temperature needs to be so low so that the magnets can become ‘super-conducting’ – conducting electricity with zero resistance.

Not only is it very difficult to achieve this low temperature, but the equipment within the tunnel has had to be carefully designed to withstand such low temperatures. As we all know from our early science lessons at school, if you cool a liquid down the molecules have less kinetic energy, and become a solid. When a solid is cooled the same occurs, and basically leads to the solid contracting.

This was one of the reasons for the problem when the LHC started up last year – the ‘quench’ described by the physicists at CERN was essentially caused by a faulty magnet. Part of the magnet designed to be able to withstand the contraction fractured, leading to a leak of liquid helium, which then caused problems to the surrounding areas of the LHC tunnel.

CERN physicists have therefore spent the last 13 months carefully checking and replacing magnets, and installing a new quench protection system.

The announcement that 1.7 kelvin has been reached is indeed exciting news, as it means that the physicists at CERN can begin to feed particles into the ring, and test the new quench protection system.

The next developments to watch out for will be the circulation of a beam around the whole LHC ring, expected by the end of November. At the moment, the first collisions are likely (realistically) in January.

On another note, talk in Restaurant 1 at CERN have turned to news of Adiene Hicheur, a French-Algerian physicist suspected of links with Al-Qaeda.

The story broke first on the French news sites, before hitting the English news stands later in the day. Quite interestingly Hicheur works for the same experiment as me – LHCb, so I heard about the news before most at CERN.

Some of the news stories surrounding this have been quite funny. I guess this is because most don’t really understand what CERN does, and then there’s the fact the organisation’s title is ‘Organisation Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire’ and we all know what happens to people when they hear the word nuclear don’t we….

But, contrary to some of the more far fetched stories there’s not that much to worry about. Although it is a bit strange to think that someone associated with Al-Qaeda might have been sat just down the corridor from me, he actually had very little security clearance, and didn’t have access to the LHC tunnel or ‘the pit’ where the LHCb experiment is housed. Plus, even if he did, i’m not sure what he’d be able to do with it!!

Oh and to all those with ideas of antimatter in their heads and cities being destroyed (thanks Angels and Demons)… it’s not like you’d be able to walk out of the door with a tank of it hidden under your coat! And even if antimatter were easily portable, CERN has only produced enough to light an electric light bulb for a few minutes in all the years they’ve been studying antimatter….!

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 9 August 2009 at 7:57 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Mathematics, Physics, Weekly Roundup

Another 100 metres

High-speed running will sap the energy of even the top athletes, but it seems scientists never tire of it. Dutch statisticians have declared the 100-metre sprint could potentially be run in just 9.51 seconds. The current record, set by Usain Bolt in 2008, stands at 9.69 seconds.

If this sounds familiar, its because I wrote not one but two blog posts last year on the very same subject. This time, the researchers used a branch of statistics called extreme-value theory to analyse previous records.

As the name suggests, extreme-value theory is used to answer questions about extreme events. It’s normally used by insurers to calculate the risks of natural disasters, but it seems that a record-breaking sprint can also be classed as “extreme”.

Machines are better than you

Japanese engineers have built a robot that can move faster than the human eye can see. Watch, with the aid of slow mo, how the robotic hand deftly controls balls and sticks as no human can:

LHC will run on half power

Ah, the Large Hadron Collider. It’s been good to Just A Theory, providing a wealth of blogging material from raps to rants, but has faired less well in actually working. Even the classic technological fix, “have you switched it off and on again?” hasn’t worked, because when the LHC boots up again this November, it will only operate at 3.5 TeV, half normal operating power.

The massive ring had to be shut down in September last year after damage caused by an incident that caused the temperature to rise rapidly. The LHD will run through Christmas to let researchers gain experience in running it, and then the power will be boosted to 5 TeV. If all goes to plan, the machine will be shut down again at the end of 2010 to prepare for full power operations of 7 TeV.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 31 May 2009 at 3:26 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Inventions & Technology, Physics, Weekly Roundup

Growing skyscrapers

Metal crystals that look mini cities? Very cool:

A small crystal city in the palm of your hand.
A small crystal city in the palm of your hand.

Frank Swain of the SciencePunk blog found these cool crystals made of bismuth, a metal similar to lead. Grown by Ken (first name only, it seems) you can actually win one by guessing its weight.

Building a CPU from scratch

I’d like to say I know my way around the innards of a computer, as I can change a harddrive or replace a broken fan without too much fuss. For Steve Chamberlin, however, these tasks are child’s play. Instead, he’s built an 8-bit CPU (like you’d find in a NES console) from 1,253 piece of wire.

Called the BMOW or Big Mess O’ Wires, when hooked up to a keyboard an monitor the CPU is a perfectly functioning computer, if practically Stone Aged when compared to modern machines. Capable of running programs like a Chess game, it’s a pretty amazing feat of ingenuity – and patience! If you’d like more info, Wired have an article and interview with Chamberlin.

Renaming the God particle

Ian Sample of the Guardian wants a new name for the Higgs boson, or “God particle” as it is often known.

Everyone’s favourite particle smasher, the Large Hadron Collider, will resume the search for the elusive Higgs once it is up and running again. In honour of Peter Higgs’ eightieth birthday this week, Sample suggests we find a new name meeting the following criteria:

1) Names should be serious and accurate
2) It is good to name things after people, but only if you can resist the pressure to hyphenate with two or three extra names
3) Names should be evocative and inspiring.

He says Higgs boson fails 3, whilst God particle fails 1 and 2. If you can think of a better name, submit it to the Guardian and you could win a copy of Science: A Four Thousand Year History by Patricia Fara. Personally, I think it should be something beginning with “C” – if only to fit in to the title of this post!

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1 Comment » Posted on Sunday 22 February 2009 at 12:09 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Physics, Weekly Roundup

“Run LHC, run!”

CERN have announced that actor Tom Hanks has been chosen to reboot the Large Hadron Collider once repairs are complete. The massive machine was damaged soon after being switched on last September, when a helium leak caused an estimated £20 million damage.

Hanks is currently filming Angels and Demons, in which he reprises the role of Robert Langdon from The Da Vinci Code. The films plot involves an attempt to destroy the Vatican with 0.25 grams of antimatter stolen from CERN. No, really.

Must CERN resort to these kinds of PR games? Isn’t the LHC enough of an accomplishment without a Hollywood star attached? Apparently not.

Bad Science in the bathroom

Ben Goldacre has truly made it big, with this interview in the toilets of Conway Hall. He talks about the usual schtick: what’s wrong with science reporting, and what should be done to fix it. I do so admire his collection of stripy shirts.


Ben Goldacre of Bad Science talks about Sensationalised Science Reporting from Conrad on Vimeo.

Some very weird experiments

I’m cheating a bit with the title of this post, but two out of three ain’t bad. My odd one out for your this week is extremely odd – a countdown of the twenty most bizarre experiments of all time.

Some are merely quirky, such as in 1978, when psychologist Russell Clark got his students to proposition others with the line “I have been noticing you around campus. I find you to be attractive. Would you go to bed with me tonight?” in order to study gender differences.

Others are ethically questionable, like monkey head transplants and electrocuting puppies. Sometimes scientists don’t do themselves any favours when it comes to public opinion!

2 Comments » Posted on Thursday 1 January 2009 at 12:00 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Space & Astronomy, Yes, But When?

…0! Happy New Year! Sorry if you’re a bit confused due to the reverse chronological nature of blogging, but I’m actually finishing the countdown of the previous post from moments earlier. How exciting. Well, let’s see in the new year with some predictions of what 2009 holds for science. The Telegraph spoke to some leading scientists to find out what’s in store.

Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics and Master of Trinity College at the University of Cambridge (phew, deep breath) points out that it is both 400 years since Galileo first wielded his telescope, as well as Darwin’s bicentennial. I expect we’ll see a little competition between these two scientific greats in 2009, but Rees hopes that we will gain answers to a question “equally interesting to astronomers and to Darwinians” – is there life on other planets? In 2009 the search for exoplanets will continue, and Rees hopes that we will figure out where we should be looking.

The editor of New Scientist, Roger Highfield, expects that commercial space travel will be big in 2009, with Virgin Galactic beginning their test flights. The space agencies of the US, Russia and the rest will also be looking to increase our knowledge of the heavens, with missions to Mars and the launching of telescopes on the cards. Highfield also looks forward to the publication of the Neanderthal genome, the relaunch of the LHC, and the 40th anniversary of the moon landing.

Colin Pillinger, Head of Planetary and Space Sciences at the Open University, thinks that the credit crunch will scupper any space-based plans, and that most of the year will be spent looking back at past achievements. Pessimistic perhaps, but we shall see. Baroness Greenfield, Director of the Royal Institution, is a little more positive, hoping to see advances in the field of neurodegeneration, including treatments for brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Professor Sir John Bell, President of the Academy of Medical Sciences also hopes to see further cures by searching for genetic links using the human genome project. Finally, science minister Lord Drayson had a rather dull and on message prediction:

“My predication for 2009 is that the Government will continue to invest in science despite the global economic downturn.”

Only time will tell. If you’re still not quite ready to let 2008 go, have a crack at the Guardian’s Science Quiz 2008. I’m afraid to say I scored a measly 10 out of 20! Other than that, all I have left to say is happy 2009!

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 13 December 2008 at 3:47 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Education, Inventions & Technology, Physics, Space & Astronomy

TIME magazine, as part of their “Top 10 Everything of 2008″ series have released the ten most impressive scientific discoveries of the year. “Discoveries” might be stretching it a bit for some of the entries – accomplishments, perhaps? Semantics aside, let’s have a look at the list:

1. Large Hadron Collider

No surprises here. The LHC was the biggest thing in science for most of the year, with extensive coverage in the mainstream media. Even here at Just A Theory I’ve written quite a bit on everyone’s favourite particle accelerator. Unfortunately, there won’t be any discoveries made at CERN for a while yet – a helium leak soon after it was started means the collider won’t be up and running again until sometime next June.

2. The North Pole of Mars

Well, we already knew it was there, but this year in May NASA’s Phoenix probe landed in Mar’s far northern region. No signs of life were found, but we now have further confirmation that Mars was once a wet planet, much like our own Earth.

3. Creating Life

Geneticist J. Craig Venter, instrumental in mapping the human genome, wrote the genetic code for an entirely new type of bacterium, Mycoplasma laboratorium. He and his team put together 582,000 base pairs that make up the genetic information of the new species. Next, this DNA must be inserted into a living bacterium to see if it can take over, effectively creating artificial life.

4. China Soars into Space

The world’s biggest country made new strides into space this year, with the first Chinese spacewalk spacewalk. Pretty impressive, since it’s only their third mission in a space programme that began in 2003.

5. More Gorillas in the Mist

For once, some good news on animal conservation. It turns out that previous estimates of the number of western lowland gorillas were too low, and the Republic of Congo is now thought to contain 125,000 gorillas – twice as many as previously thought.

6. Brave New Worlds

The discovery of extrasolar solar planets continued at a rapid pace this year, with 45 new worlds announced in June by Swiss astronomer Michel Mayor. Later on in November, we got the first ever pictures of planets around another star thank’s to good ol’ Hubble.

7. The Power of Invisibility

Scientists at Berkeley, University of California, announced the invention of an invisibility cloak. Nanotechnology and metamaterials make it possible for an object to completely vanish, but don’t expect your own cloak soon – it’s far from ready to be practical yet.

8. Cenozoic Park?

In Novemeber, biochemistry professor Steven Schuster of Penn State University revealed 80% of the genome of the ancient woolly mammoth, painstakingly recovered using fossilised hair. This lead to speculation we might one day be cloning the furry creatures – has no one seen Jurassic Park?!

9. Can You Spell Science?

Between 1979 and 2006, the percentage of science literacy in adults has doubled to 17%. It’s not that great news though – according to the survey by the University of Michigan, a quarter of the US population count as “civic scientifically literate”. In other words, three in four adults will struggle to understand science stories printed in the media – I wonder if that includes this blog?!

10. First Family

Finally, we have the discovery of the first “nuclear family”. In Saxony-Anhalt in central Germany, a 4,600-year-old grave was discovered to contain the remains of an adult male and female, and two boys aged 8 to 9 and 4 to 5. DNA evidence confirmed their relationships: they are indeed the First Family.

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2 Comments » Posted on Sunday 7 December 2008 at 4:04 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Education, Physics, Weekly Roundup

Shell I never

A photo from the Boer War has revealed that a tortoise named Jonathan is one of the world’s oldest living animals, at age 176.

Jonathan in 1900, aged around 70, on the island of St Helena

It’s crazy to think that this tortoise was born in 1832. The same year saw the birth of Lewis Carroll (author of Alice in Wonderland) and the death of the mathematician Évariste Galois, whose pioneering work in group theory ended when he was killed in a duel. Of course, Jonathan has no connection to this events, but still – he’s pretty damn old.

LHC still broken, but not broke

Poor Large Hadron Collider. You just don’t seem to be able to catch a break. It seems that when the particle accelerator leaked helium earlier in the year, the damage was quite extensive. Repair costs will be almost £14m, and the LHC won’t be ready to turn back on until next summer.

Now, £14m isn’t much compared to the £4.4 billion it cost to build in the first place (yes, £4.4 billion, not million as The Telegraph is reporting…) but it’s still a fair chunk of change. LHC haters shouldn’t have to worry about the begging bowl being passed their way however, as CERN hope to meet the costs within their existing budget.

£250m for training new scientists

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the UK’s funding body for science and engineering, has pledged £250m to invest in training the scientists and engineers of the future.

The money will allow the creation of 44 training centres across the country, and give funding to more then 2,000 PhD students. Lord Drayson, the Minister for Science and Innovation, was enthusiastic about the centres:

“Britain faces many challenges in the 21st Century and needs scientists and engineers with the right skills to find answers to these challenges, build a strong economy and keep us globally competitive,” he said.

“This is an exciting, innovative approach to training young researchers and will help build a better future for Britain.”

It’s nice to see that even in these times of economic woe, scientists aren’t being forgotten!

Comments Off Posted on Friday 7 November 2008 at 5:28 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Musings

I’m starting to worry about the Royal Society of Chemistry. Lately they’ve been acting a bit like an embarrassing school teacher – the kind who tries to be “down wid da kids”. Innit. Urgh.

Sorry. First of all, it was their competition a couple of months ago to suggest a new name for the Large Hadron Collider. They offered £500 to anyone who could come up with a better name than the current “contrived acronym”. The winner was “Halo” – in my opinion a far worse name than LHC, but there we go.

The point is, what was the RSC even doing running such a competition? Their own press release mentions that “Some reports say that the RSC is suffering from “professional jealousy”". I don’t think it’s that, but I’m stumped as to why the Royal Society of CHEMISTRY are getting involved with a particle physics experiment.

You might say that they were just jumping on the LHC bandwagon, hoping to ride the massive wave of publicity. It’s possible, but then how do you explain this latest development? The RSC are now “inviting the public to devise a successful ending to the greatest-ever cinema cliff-hanger to mark the 40th birthday next year of The Italian Job made in 1969.”

Sorry, what? The Italian Job? Sure, great film, no disagreement there. Fantastic ending, you’ll get no argument from me. But, and I say it again, why the Royal Society of C-H-E-M-I-S-T-R-Y? It turns out that 100 years before the film was the creation of the Periodic Table by Dmitri Mendeleyev.

Now, get ready for this.

There’s gold in The Italian Job. There’s also gold in the Periodic Table.

That’s it! That’s the link they’re going for! Bravo, RSC, on one of the most tenuous excuses I have ever seen. They’re trying to “draw attention to gold”, and by association, the Periodic Table. It must also be pointed out that the RSC “does not condone the fictional bullion heist and regards the competition only as a scientific and logical challenge.” (I like that they don’t condone fictional heists, presumably leaving the door open for real life ones.)

If you want to enter the competition (and aid the RSC in its descent to madness) the details are all in the link above. The prize is a three-night stay for two in Turin. Not a chemistry set in sight…

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 30 September 2008 at 4:10 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings

Like many others I have been following the financial turmoil following the failure of the $700bn Wall Street bailout with a mix of horror over the sums involved, uncertainty about the future, and schadenfreude towards the “fat cats”.

It’s also got me thinking about the similarities between business reporting and science communication. I’d like to think I know a thing or two about science, but when it comes to the financial section my eyes are as likely to glaze over as the next person. This means that whilst I can tell you a great deal about mathematical derivatives, I’m pretty much in the dark about their financial namesake.

This lack of knowledge allows me to place myself in the shoes of those who believed stories about the Large Hadron Collider destroying the Earth. It is easy for me to see the current crisis as a group of mad scientists (bankers) who spent vast sums of money on an experiment (sub-prime mortgages) that even they didn’t really understand, and now that it has all gone wrong we are being sucked into a (financial) black hole. These mysterious bankers use jargon such as “leveraging” and “securitisation” that I don’t understand, so I turn to the media for explanation – and I find it lacking.

Where can $700bn be conjured from in a matter of weeks? Why aren’t the people who caused all this trouble being fined or thrown in jail? Why weren’t they stopped in the first place? These question aren’t being dealt with by the media, or if they are the answers aren’t easily accessible to the layperson such as myself.

How should I apply these thoughts to science communication, and my writing on Just a Theory? I think keeping in mind my misunderstanding and frustration towards business news can help me avoid those same feelings in readers wishing to learn more about science.

For example, it’s easy to make the mistake of assuming too much background knowledge on the part of a reader, and whilst it would be impossible (and frankly, boring) to explain every single detail from first principles, it’s important to consider the entry point for a typical member of the public.

This is especially true when dealing with high profile stories such as the LHC, where even people who might not normally read science stories become hungry for information. Normally I don’t really care if the FTSE or whatever is down a few points (because I don’t really know what that means), but if the government buy Northern Rock then I want to know about it, and I want to quickly be brought up to speed. The same goes for the general public, who hear that the world could be ending next Wednesday and want to know why.

Another thing to think about: the experts aren’t always right. For years the bankers have tinkered with their models and acted on their findings – often resulting in huge financial gains. Now, as it all comes crashing down, it turns out the models were wrong. The public want to know why these “experts” were so off the mark, but the truth is that to the best of their knowledge, the models worked.

The same goes with science. In the past I have called evolution a “fact” – but really, it isn’t. It’s our best model of how living creatures came to be, and if one day science comes up with a better model, evolution will be replaced by a new “fact”. I see this as a matter of semantics, because I will happily accept any alternative theory that falsifies evolution with its improved scientific reasoning – and no, intelligent design, that does not mean you. Until that happens, I’m happy to call evolution a fact.

This idea that “the model could be wrong” isn’t always well communicated to the public, many of whom see science as attempting to hand down absolute truths from on high. When scientists change their mind, or disagree with one another, people often draw the conclusion that science is worthless and lose confidence in the word of scientists – in the same way that the bankers’ broken models have lead to a loss of confidence on the stock market.

Apologies if you find this post a bit rambling compared to my usual style – hence the new category, “Musings” – but I’ve had these thoughts swimming around in my head for a while. They’re still not quite all joined up yet, but I think bashing them out on the keyboard has helped a bit. Don’t worry though, tomorrow will see a return to your regularly scheduled science blogging!

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 24 September 2008 at 9:48 am by Jacob Aron
In Physics

Last week when it was announced last week that the Large Hadron Collider would have to be shut down for two months, I suggested that this could potentially conflict with the planned shut down in December. It seems that this is now officially the case. CERN engineers have stated that the collider will have to be offline until “spring 2009″ whilst they make repairs.

It’s a real shame considering the very successful launch on September 10th, where progress actually exceeded expectations. Still, the guys and gals at CERN are in it for the long haul – the particle collider took 13 years to build and another two to be ready for “switch-on”. It could also be years before substitutional results start to emerge from the experiment, so a few months delay is not the end of the world. Still, the downtime must be incredibly frustrating for all involved.

Many have called the LHC a cathedral of the 21st century. I’m not sure I like the “science is the new religion” implications, but in terms of sheer construction and engineering, it’s certainly an apt comparison. If you have checked out the facts and figures of the LHC, they make for interesting reading. Did you know that the LHC…

…is 26,659 metres long, but sends proton beams whizzing round 11,425 times a second?

…cooled to -271.3°C (1.9 K), but 100,000 times hotter than the sun when proton beams collide?

…will provide enough data to fill 100,000 DVDs a year?

Amazing stuff, but I guess we’re all going to have to wait until spring 2009 to see it in action.

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1 Comment » Posted on Saturday 20 September 2008 at 4:34 pm by Jacob Aron
In Physics

After all the fuss over the switching on of the Large Hadron Collider, it turns out the experiment will have to be shut down again.

The LHC has to operate at temperatures near absolute zero, otherwise the superconducting magnets that hold the proton beams in place won’t work properly. On Friday, around 100 of these magnets suffered a failure which caused a rapid rise in temperature, known as a quench. The magnets went up almost 100 °C, leaving them around a still comparatively chilly -170 °C, but much too hot to retain their superconducting properties.

The tunnel sector where the failure occurred will now have to be warmed up even further to allow engineers to perform repairs, and then cooled back down to its operating temperature of 1.9K. The process will take two month, says CERN spokesman James Gillies:

“A full investigation is still under way but the most likely cause seems to be a faulty electrical connection between two of the magnets which probably melted, leading to a mechanical failure. We’re investigating and we can’t really say more than that now. But we do know that we will have to warm the machine up, make the repair, cool it down, and that’s what brings you to two months of downtime for the LHC.”

As I recall, the original plan was to shut down the LHC over the Christmas period, presumably as researchers would be taking a break for some festivities. If they aren’t up and running until two months from now that will be approaching December, so I wonder if the planned shut down will still go ahead.

You can actually follow the temperature status of the LHC online. In the bottom left-hand corner, you can see that sector 3-4 has experience a spike in temperature up to nearly 100K. This page gives more detail, showing the spike occurring between lunchtime yesterday and midnight. I think it’s pretty cool that all of this information is accessible to anyone online.

As an aside, the Telegraph have a story about the difficulty in communicating the energy used by the LHC. Apparently, with a beam energy of 10 trillion watts, the LHC could defrost a pizza in just 30 nanoseconds, according to J R Minkel of Scientific American. Dr David Sankey of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory disputes his figures, saying that because the protons are arranged in bunches it would actually be almost 1000 times quicker, at 250 picoseconds. I’ll keep you up to date with an further LHC pizza news, as it happens.

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 13 September 2008 at 3:36 pm by Jacob Aron
In Physics

First there was a rap, and now the Large Hadron Collider has a game. Unfortunately it’s not as good as the rap, but it will teach you what the LHC is for, and how it works.

First, you must help accelerate protons up to speed, then adjust the magnets to get them following around the ring, and finally use quadrupole magnets (which I had never heard of, so it’s educational!) to focus the proton beams. Only after completing these tasks can you push the big red button and start the LHC.

Just in case you are still worried that pushing the red button might create a black hole and kill us all, a handy website has been created to put your mind at ease. Simply point your browser at www.hasthelhcdestroyedtheearth.com for up the minute information on the status of the planet. There’s even an RSS feed!

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1 Comment » Posted on Wednesday 10 September 2008 at 9:15 pm by Jacob Aron
In Physics

Two arms, two legs, a head and everything. Beams have been circulated both ways, so congratulations to everyone at CERN – the Large Hadron Collider works! Let the science begin.

I woke up this morning and began watching coverage of the Large Hadron Collider on BBC News. They kept referring to the gigantic machine as “this generation’s moon landing”, but the trouble with the comparison is that the LHC does not fair well on television. There is no “one giant leap” moment, no easy sound bite.

A large amount of screen time was devoted to a room of scientists clapping occasionally as the beam of protons made its way around the full 27 kilometres of the LHC circuit, with the BBC presenters helpfully chiming in “I don’t know what they’re clapping about.” They had Simon Singh on, who was doing his best, but as with most live news coverage it boiled down to “nothing’s happening, nothing’s happening…wait…wait…I’m just being told that nothing’s happening.”

On the newspaper/internet sides of the media, its clear that the LHC is big news. Most papers are running stories pretty close to the front page, and online the scientists at CERN are topping the “most read” charts. Obviously, there is a huge public interest in the LHC.

BBC Radio 4 is by far the leading source of information for those wanting to learn more, with a substantial number of programmes for “Big Bang day”. I didn’t catch Andrew Marr on Today (I’d been wooed by pictures to BBC News), but with the aid of iPlayer I’ve managed to check out most of the offerings. Some links (for the next seven days only, unfortunately) and my reviews:

Engineering Solutions

In the first dedicated programme of the day, Adam Hart-Davis talks to the scientists and engineers at CERN who built the world’s biggest machine. Its nice to hear directly from the people who worked on the LHC, even if much of the conversation consists of Hart-Davis’ astonishment at some large number. The programme also highlights the international nature of the project, with men and women from a number of countries contributing. Worth a listen in order to get a more personal feeling for the events at CERN.

Woman’s Hour

Woman’s Hour began with a recap of the days events so far by Andrew Marr, and then moved on to a discussion with four female scientists, including one from CERN. They talked about the need to get girls more involved with science, and to show that that subjects such as physics are not just for boys. The female population of CERN makes up only 10% of the total, so its an issue that needs to be rectified. The panel suggested introducing girls to female scientists, as well as showing them how science benefits their everyday lives, could help with this.

The programme also featured interviews with female scientists at CERN, who talked about balancing their scientific work with family life. A common theme was the difficulty in taking a break from a scientific career in order to raise a family; in a fast moving fields, a few years out of the loop could mean it was almost impossible to return.

Physics Rocks

Presented by CERN physicist Brian Cox, who before becoming a scientist played with the band D:Ream – their hits included the New Labour anthem “Things Can Only Get Better” – Physics Rocks speaks to celebrities about their interest in physics.

Guests included the actor Alan Alda and his friend, physicist Brian Greene, who collaborated with him to create the World Science Festival in New York. A huge fan of science, Alda had even designed a t-shirt for CERN. The pair talked about what the possibility of parallel universe could mean for us.

Comedian Dara O’Briain flaunted his BSc in mathematical physics, and suggested that experiments like CERN are great for improving interest in science, whilst John Barrowman (who will pop up again as Captain Jack in the next programme, Torchwood) thought that CERN is “science fiction” and could be creating a “mini-universe”. Not too sure about that one.

Its one of the more light hearted programmes on offer today, as illustrated by Cox on homoeopathy: “how big a particle accelerator would we need to detect bullshit?”, but he views this irreverence as essential to bringing science to the heart of our culture.

Torchwood: Lost Souls

As the first radio episode of the Doctor Who spin-off, I wasn’t expecting too much from Torchwood. A bit naff even at its best, the prospect of an “edutainment” episode did not inspire confidence. It seems I was right to be sceptical, as the first half of the programme mainly consisted of characters talking about just how fascinating it all is.

“Something’s going on at the LHC!”
“The LHC, what’s that?”
“Well, the LHC is…[insert Wikipedia article here]”

Slightly condescending, to say the least. As for the actual plot, it turns out the testing of the LHC has opened up a portal allowing neutron-devouring aliens to come through, leading to the disappearance of 12 people at CERN. There’s some nonsense about the LHC being a gateway to heaven, and then our hero Captain Jack utters the dreaded phrase “reverse the polarity!” This allows him to seal the portal by colliding beams of protons and anti-protons (the real LHC only collides proton beams) and find the Higgs boson in the process. Oh dear.

The episode at least had a few nods for Torchwood fans, with the neutron-eating aliens impersonating two characters who had recently died on the show, and a speech about just how wonderful the human race is in our pursuit for knowledge, did produce this nice little gem: “sometimes, just asking the question is the answer.”

All this, and I’ve not even covered half the programmes on offer. Simon Singh talked about anti-matter in 5 Particles, Front Row was devoted to the representation of physics in the arts, and even as I post this The Great Big Particle Adventure is airing more interviews with CERN scientists. Finally, The Genuine Particle is a satire set in CERN, broadcast at 11.30. I’m looking forward to catching up with the rest tomorrow. Well done Radio 4, for some excellent coverage.

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 9 September 2008 at 2:04 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Physics

The Today programme had Professor Stephen Hawking on this morning, taking about (what else), the Large Hadron Collider. He reiterated much of what I’ve said this past week, namely micro black holes are unlikely to be produced, and even if they do crop up, we’re perfectly safe.

Hawking also agreed with my comments yesterday about the immediate benefits of the LHC, stating science for the sake of science is enough for now:

“Throughout history, people have studied pure science from a desire to understand the universe, rather than for practical applications, or commercial gain. But their discoveries have later turned out to have great practical benefits. It is difficult to see an economic return from research at the LHC, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be any.”

He also pointed out that together the cost of the LHC and the space program (which Hawking also views as vital to the survival of the human race) cost less than 0.1% of world GDP – which we should easily afford. Hawking himself could be out of pocket, as he has a bet against the discovery of the Higgs boson – to the tune of $100. He thinks it would be more “exciting” not to find the Higgs, as it would mean something is wrong with the Standard Model of particle physics.

It’s good to hear from Hawking on the LHC. He’s arguably the most famous living physicist, even if many people remember him for his disability rather than his discoveries. Hopefully the general public will have read his books or seen him on TV, remembered him as an interesting and reasonably sane guy, and take his word for it – we’re not all going to die tomorrow, but we are witnessing an extremely important piece of science.

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2 Comments » Posted on Monday 8 September 2008 at 6:03 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Physics

It seems the media pendulum is swinging back in favour of the Large Hadron Collider, with both the Times and the Sun reporting the particle accelerator could lead to “improved cancer treatments, systems for destroying nuclear waste and insights into climate change.”

The claims, presumably put out by CERN as damage control, are pretty impressive. Apparently cancer cells could be destroyed using particle beams containing “protons, carbon ions and even antimatter.” Antimatter can be produced by the proton synchrotron, part of the system which accelerates beams before injecting them into the LHC, but I’m not really sure how that helps kill cancer. The LHC isn’t the first machine to create antimatter, so what is being done here that is new?

CERN will also use the proton synchrotron in a new laboratory investigating the interactions of cosmic rays and clouds. If cosmic rays fired into a “cloud chamber” form clouds, it could have “interesting implications.” Very promising, I’m sure.

I don’t really want to bash the guys at CERN, but come on. The similar wording in both articles indicates cribbing from a press release (although I can’t find one on CERN’s site) providing journalists with some tenuous links to hot issues in science, as away of getting some positive press for the LHC.

I’d rather see a spin on the actual science taking place at CERN, rather than some “maybes” around the periphery. Yeah, the discovery of the Higgs boson might not immediatly lead to some wonderful technological revolution, but that’s not what science is about. Imagine if Newton had publicised his explanation of gravity as “Great News For Farmers – A New Method Of Collecting Apples Is On The Way!” He had no way of knowing that his calculations would eventually be used to put men on the moon – that’s just not how science works.

CERN should be celebrating their efforts of discovery, not pandering to a fickle media – although if the LHC can make my whites “whiter than white”, I’m all for it.

3 Comments » Posted on Saturday 6 September 2008 at 6:15 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Physics

As we draw closer to the official “switching on” of the Large Hadron Collider, the mainstream media is increasingly running stories on the possibility of the destruction of the universe. A quick summary:

I can see the appeal of such stories. EARTH SUCKED INTO BLACK HOLE!!! is an impressive headline, and sure to shift a few newspapers. Unfortunately for editors, it’s just not going to happen. The LHC Safety Assessment Group have reviewed the dangers and found that there are “no reasons for concern.”

The LHC is the largest particle accelerator ever built, but that doesn’t mean that the collisions within it have never taken place before. In fact, cosmic rays have been colliding in the Earth’s atmosphere for billions of years, and have already generated the equivalent of a million LHC experiments. As you have probably notice, the planet still exists. Staggeringly, more than 10 million million – that’s 10,000,000,000,000 – LHC-like experiments are conducted every second across the universe.

The same goes for microscopic blank holes, which the media believe could sink to the centre of the Earth and consume us all. If that were true, it would have already happened, either here or else where in the universe. The continued existence of dense bodies such as neutron stars rules out this possibility, as they would attract “natural” microscopic black holes and be destroyed. Other exotic phenomena such as strangelets (hypothetical lumps of “strange matter”), vacuum bubbles and magnetic monopoles have also failed to occur during cosmic ray collision, so they’re ruled out as well.

All of these occurrence are what I mentally lump into the “too interesting to actually happen” category. They join things like alien invasions, teleportation and mind-reading. When you can make a decent sci-fi flick out of the concept, it probably isn’t going to happen.

So, why isn’t this being communicated by the majority of the mainstream media? The legal case filled by the likes of Professor Otto Rössler probably doesn’t help. Rössler, along with other scientists, submitted their case to the European Court of Human Rights, claiming that the LHC violates the rights to life and private family life which are provided under the European Convention of Human Rights. “Look,” says the media. “Even the boffins think this collider thingy will blow up the world. Someone stop the mad scientists!”

I have to wonder how many retractions will be printed come next Wednesday, when newspapers find that their offices are still around. Somewhere between none and zero, I reckon. The event will be ignored by the public at large, many of whom will say “oh, they just got lucky,” and continue to believe scientists will destroy us all.

Comments Off Posted on Friday 8 August 2008 at 12:12 pm by Jacob Aron
In Physics

It turns out that the Large Hadron Collider is not actually being switched on today – although that depends on you definition of “switched on”. It was my understanding that when the LHC had been cooled to nearly absolute zero,a very chilly 1.9 Kelvin (that’s -269.1 degrees Celsius), it would be put into operation. What this actually means is the scientists at CERN can begin firing proton beams through a small part of the LHC, in preparation for the first full circuit which is due to take place on September 10th – the official start-up date. They are testing the synchronisation of the LHC with the Proton Synchrotron (PS) and Super Proton Synchrotron (SPS), which get the proton beams up to the high energies required before injecting them into the LHC. Essentially, they’ve pushed the power button but it hasn’t finished booting up yet.

With that clarification out of the way I’ll get on to the real point of this post: what exactly is the LHC, and what does it do? Those of you who watched the LHC rap I put up yesterday may have some idea, so I’m sorry if my explanation is slightly less entertaining.

An ariel view of CERN, on the Swiss-French border. The biggest ring is the LHC itself, whilst the smaller rings are the Proton Synchrotron and Super Proton Synchrotron. Click for a larger image.

The LHC is the latest (and largest) particle accelerator to be built. A particle accelerator is exactly what it sounds like – it accelerates electrically-charged particles (such as the positively charged proton) to near the speed of light, and then the “Collider” part of the LHC steps in. Two beams are sent whizzing around the ring in opposite directions as they build up to speed, held on course by powerful superconducting magnets. Superconductivity allows the flow of particles with very little electrical resistance, but can only take place at extremely low temperatures – hence the cooling of the LHC.

A simulated collision in the LHC

When the two proton beams collide they explode into a mass of exotic particles. The particle the scientists are interested in finding is the Higgs boson. First theorised in 1964 by Peter Higgs (amongst other), the Higgs boson is basically a particle associated with the Higgs field, which tells other particles what their mass should be. The Higgs field covers the entire universe, and it’s as if heavier particles such as the top quark (one of the basic building blocks of matter) struggle to “swim” through the field, where as massless particles such as the photon don’t interact with it at all.

The trouble is, we can’t see this field. However, all fields have a particle associated with them (for example, the photon is responsible for electromagnetism) which means that if the Higgs boson is detected, this will prove the existence of the Higgs field and validate the Standard Model of particle physics. If the Higgs boson cannot be found, then something is wrong with the Standard Model, and a lot of physicists will be left scratching their heads. Hopefully once the LHC is in action it will be the former, and not the latter.

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 7 August 2008 at 2:52 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Physics

Tomorrow should see (if all goes to plan) the switching on of the Large Hadron Collider, a massive particle accelerator which scientists hope will enable them to pin down the elusive Higgs boson. I’ll be posting more about the collider tomorrow, but until then, enjoy the LHC rap:

Yes, it’s pretty silly, but it actually has a decent amount of scientific content. See you tomorrow for something slightly more sensible!

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