After Historic Discovery, Higgs Flies Economy

Real superstars: Peter Higgs congratulates ATLAS experiment spokesperson Fabiola Gianotti after she announced her collaboration's discovery of a Higgs-like particle (CERN/ATLAS/Getty)

Real superstars: Peter Higgs congratulates ATLAS experiment spokesperson Fabiola Gianotti after she announced her collaboration’s discovery of a Higgs-like particle. Credit: CERN/ATLAS/Getty

I am endlessly baffled by modern society.

We have reality TV stars whose only talent is to shock and annoy, and yet inexplicably have millions of adoring fans. We also have sports superstars who get paid tens of millions of dollars to play a game they love, and yet they still get elevated to God-like status.

And then there’s Professor Peter Higgs, arguably the biggest science superstar of recent years.

The 83-year-old retired theoretical physicist was one of six scientists who, in the 1960s, assembled the framework behind the Higgs boson — the almost-unequivocally-discovered gauge particle that is theorized to carry the Higgs field, thereby endowing matter with mass. The theory behind the Higgs boson and all the high-energy physics experiments pursuing its existence culminated in a grand CERN announcement from Geneva, Switzerland, on Wednesday. With obvious emotion and nerves, lead scientist of the Large Hadron Collider’s CMS detector Joe Incandela announced what we’ve all been impatiently waiting for: “We have observed a new boson.

So, we now have evidence for the existence of the Higgs boson — or a Higgs boson — to a high degree of statistical certainty, ultimately providing observational evidence for a critical piece of the Standard Model. This story began half a century ago with Prof. Higgs’ theoretical team, and it culminated on July 4, 2012, when results from a $10 billion particle accelerator were announced.

After the historic events of the last few days, one would think Peter Higgs would have been at least treated to a First Class flight back to his home in Scotland. But true to form, Higgs had other ideas:

Later, Higgs’s friend and colleague Alan Walker recounted the low-key celebration they held after learning of the breakthrough, one of the most important scientific discoveries of recent years.

Walker said he and Higgs were flying home from CERN in Geneva this week on budget airline easyJet when he offered Higgs a glass of Prosecco sparkling wine so they could toast the discovery.

Higgs replied: “‘I’d rather have a beer’ and popped a can of London Pride,” Walker said.

via Discovery News

In a world where “celebrities” are hailed as superhuman, to hear that potential Nobel Prize candidate Peter Higgs took a budget airline home, after history had been made, typifies the humble nature of a great scientist and puts the world of celebrity to shame. Money and fame matters little to the people who are unraveling the fabric of the Universe.

On a different (yet related) note, Motherboard interviewed people on the streets of Brooklyn and asked them if they knew what the Higgs boson is. Most had never heard of it, let alone understood it (which, let’s face it, isn’t a surprise — many science communicators still have problems explaining the Higgs mechanism). But I wonder if the same group of people were asked if they knew what a “Snookie” was; I’m guessing they’d have no problem answering.

People may not read the news, but they sure have an innate knowledge of who’s in the gossip columns.

Higgs Boson-like Particle Discovered in CMS and ATLAS Data!

The CMS detector at the LHC (CERN)

The CMS detector at the LHC (CERN)

Yes, the Higgs boson has been discovered… or, to put it more accurately, something that looks like a Higgs boson has been discovered. But is it a Higgs boson? There’s a very high probability that it is, but in the world where theory meets high-energy physics, it pays to be completely sure about what you’re looking at.

Prof. Peter Higgs, theoretical theorist, receives applause at the CERN event.

Prof. Peter Higgs, theoretical theorist, receives applause at the CERN event.

But for the ATLAS and CMS collaborations at the Large Hadron Collider in CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland, who held a rapturous conference at CERN and in Australia this morning, they’re pretty damned sure they are looking at a bona fide Higgs boson discovery.

“We have observed a new boson,” said CMS lead scientist Joe Incandela.

“We observe in our data clear signs of a new particle, at the level of five sigma, in the mass region around 126 GeV,” confirmed ATLAS lead scientist Fabiola Gianotti.

“I think we have it,” said CERN Director-General Rolf Heuer. “We have discovered a particle that is consistent with a Higgs boson.”

Why all the certainty? Well, it all comes down to statistics, and all the statistics seem to show a defined “bump” in the CMS and ATLAS data around the mass-energy of 125-126 GeV/c2 — to a statistical certainty of 4.9 and 5 sigma. 125-126 GeV/c2 just so happens to be one of the theorized masses of a Higgs boson — placing the Higgs’ mass at 133 times that of a proton. This particular boson is therefore the most massive boson ever detected.

For more news on this incredible discovery, check out my Discovery News blog “Particle ‘Consistent’ With Higgs Boson Discovered

The LHC Black Hole Rap… Best Yet

Released in December 2009, Kate McAlpine (a.k.a. AlpineKat) put together the rather fun “Black Hole Rap” in an effort to trivialize the disinformation being peddled about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). You might remember AlpineKat from the hugely popular (and deliciously geeky) “LHC Rap” that has generated over 5 million hits on the YouTube video. Here’s the newest music video filmed in the depths of the French-Swiss border:

Unfortunately, the crazy “LHC Doomsday Suit” that tried (and failed, miserably) to stop LHC operations is still fresh in people’s minds. However, physicists have stepped up to the plate to debunk the claims and the LHC is happily colliding protons to its heart’s content. I love it how science wins, despite the noise made by a few crazed doomsday wingnuts…

Prof. Brian Cox Accidentally REVEALS the TRUTH About the LHC!!!!

(Note the clever use of CAPS and excessive exclamation marks in the title. It speaks volumes.)

I guess this confirms I was wrong. Consider this an apology to all the crackpots, doomsayers, cranks and Walter Wagner. I’m sorry I got it all… so… wrong.

While out on the town in London, Bad Astronomer Phil Plait pulled Prof. Brian Cox out of a pub and subjected him to some intense interrogation. Obviously caught with his guard down, Cox folded under the pressure and briefly told the world what we can expect when the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) recommences experiments in November. Wow, just… wow.

This made me giggle. Looks like TAM London was a tonne of fun, hopefully next time I can go.

But for now, sorry Walter, you’re still wrong.

2012 Has Become the Tweed Jacket of Doomsday Scenarios

Palenque Museum Mayan glyphs (wyattsailing.com)

In a little over three years time, December 21st 2012 will be upon us. For every reason under the Sun, 2012 will be a normal year, with its fair share of trials, tribulations, disasters, deaths, political unrest and pretty much every other setback we’ve been facing this year, last year and all the other years we’ve lived through. Some years are better than others, some are downright bleak, but we can never predict what the year 2012 is going to be like. And no, the Mayans, astrologers, secret government conspirators or tea leaves don’t have a clue either.

No vague doomsday prophesy predicted since the dawn of time has happened, and that’s not going to change.

It’s a little thing called causality. No future event can be seen before it happens, otherwise the whole cause-and-effect thing gets completely screwed up. It’s the way time works, no amount of believing otherwise will change that…

*yawn* Sorry, I fell asleep. Is it me, or is this 2012 bunkum already getting out-dated? Has it become the doomsday equivalent of the tweed jacket of fashion?

I bring this up as the doomsday hype is leaking into every facet of reporting, and today I read an Examiner post that is trying desperately hard to get attention. This time, it’s not about crop circles predicting killer solar flares, it’s the LA Science and Tech News Examiner who couldn’t resist dropping in a mention for the Mayan calendar when reporting about the recent Large Hadron Collider (LHC) woes.

The report goes into some detail about recent LHC problems, pointing out that the particle accelerator probably won’t be operating at full energy until… wait for it[cue doomsday alert!] …2012.

This triggers another doomsday ‘tweed jacket,’ the nonsensical LHC-induced Earth-eating-black-hole pseudo-science theory popularized by Walter “I need some attention” Wagner after he tried (and failed) to sue CERN for endangering the planet with its scary physics.

I’d understand if the report was commenting about real science behind the various silly doomsday scenarios that are being thrown around like confetti, but it isn’t. Fred Gober decided that the LHC wasn’t interesting enough to stand on its own merits and threw in some doom to jazz it up a bit.

It’s true that Gober was just airing opinions, which is perfectly fine, but at least poke fun at the 2012 doomsday hype rather than using it as a reason to try to add some fear to LHC science (although I suspect he might be trying to be funny, didn’t work). Gober also finds it necessary to link to a ridiculous ‘2012 believer’ site (apparently Mel Gibson ‘believes’, shocker).

I also understand that many readers won’t pay much attention to the doomsday reference, but as we found out in the run-up to last year’s first attempt to get the particle accelerator started, some people take this kind of reporting seriously, occasionally with tragic (and bizarre) consequences.

Unfortunately, 2012 will continue to be overused for the next 40 months, so expect more science-based articles like this Examiner post that decide to add some doom to their reporting.

Chances of the World Being Destroyed by the LHC is 50:50. Yes, Walter Wagner Is Back!

It’s one of those occasions when you’re not sure whether you should laugh… or hold back your giggling because you realise you’re witnessing some very well produced train-wreck TV.

Oh yes, it can mean only one thing, Walter Wagner is back! But this time, the media came prepared.

They made fun of him.

Yes, it was the Jon Stewart Show, and yes it was satire, but this time the joke was on the crackpot notion that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) could actually cause harm to the world.

The subject of the LHC drove me insane last year (it also annoyed some very high profile physicists); it became almost impossible to report on the research CERN scientists were hoping to carry out, as every day Wagner (with his ‘lawsuit’ craziness) or Rossler (with his ‘infringement of human rights’ nonsense) would pop up, forcing any decent physics article into a defence of the LHC. Needless to say, this annoyed many physicists involved in the LHC, but excited media doomsday headlines into a frenzy of doomsday crackpottery.

Now, Wagner has been caught out and been made a fool of. Although I hate to see anyone in this situation, in this case, I think it is needed. Wagner only has himself to blame. He started these doomsday theories, now it’s up to mainstream comedy shows to debunk his authority on the subject.

Hold on, did he ever have an authority over physics? Oh yes, that’s right. No, he didn’t. He used the media as a tool to gain attention.

On the other hand, physicist Prof. John Ellis is an authority on physics… in fact, he’s the authority on LHC physics. I think I’d put my trust in an evil genius with a PhD and decades of experience, rather than the Caped Wagner Crusader any day.

For more on the subject, check out Ethan’s Starts With A Bang, he has more patience than me and delves into the subject a bit more »

Here’s more LHC goodness if you’re hungry for more »

Source: Gia via Twitter

Reality, Virtual

Computer technology is reaching new levels of sophistication, limited only by our imagination (and that pesky Moore’s Law). As we develop faster and more powerful processors, an exponential increase in the number of calculations can be done per second, providing advanced software with the capability to deliver complex applications to the user. In fact, some computer operations are becoming hard to distinguish from basic human interactions (neural networks hold particular promise).

Naturally, this continuing advance in technology has stimulated the Internet, allowing users worldwide to interact at great speed, where virtual worlds have been created, and people can project themselves as an avatar (a virtual ambassador for their real-world personalities). These virtual worlds have become so immense that millions of users can interact, and the boundary of the universe is only limited by how many networked computers you have running the show. These virtual universes are known as Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG), and NASA hopes to release their universe (Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond) some time next year.

User interfaces are advancing too. Gone are the days of simple gaming feedback features (such as a rumbling joypad when your 3D animated cartoon character suffers a blow on your 2D TV screen), virtual reality is starting to live up to its name, where the virtual world is overlapping with our real world. Now a 5-sense virtual reality system is undergoing tests, and its implications for NASA’s MMORPG and future space exploration could be huge…

When does virtual reality become… reality?

Imagine: You’ve just completed your expedition inside the Hellas impact basin on the surface of Mars. You can smell the new plastic inside your spacesuit and hear the hiss of your air supply in the back of your bulbous helmet. Looking out over the crater bottom, the 9 km high wall of Martian rock restricts your view of the planet; there’s a feeling that you are closed into a huge hole dug out by an unimaginably large shovel. Looking down, you survey the scattered rocks and rusty regolith. Although your suit isn’t as bulky as what is needed on the Moon or during an EVA, it still restricts your movement as you bend over to collect more fist-sized rocks for your research. Surprisingly, the ground is very frosted and you spot small collections of water ice. It hasn’t sublimed into the air.

As you are so deep, the air pressure is nearly twice as high as the atmospheric average. According to orbital measurements, it may even get warm enough for liquid water to exist on the surface. This is why you’re here, to seek out signs of seasonal weathering on the samples, and to look for signs of large quantities of water to be used in your habitat. Looking around, this isn’t just a gentle winter frosting, water is here, and there’s lots of it…

As we may not be sending man to Mars for a long time yet, the above scenario could be just as well played out in virtual reality as in real life. As there is little political incentive for a NASA-led manned mission to the Red Planet any time soon (and no, an Apollo 2.0 to Mars to save the ailing US economy isn’t the incentive we are looking for), could a virtual Mars be constructed for training and exploration purposes?

As it turns out, NASA is currently working with a group of software companies to release “Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond” (reminds me of the awesome 1999 “X: Beyond the Frontier” first-person space adventure game). The scheduled rollout date is sometime in 2010, but it looks like the MMORPG is already a long way down the road of development. This new NASA universe will be based in a near-future reality where online subscribers can play the role of explorer, doing “mundane” astronaut tasks in low-Earth orbit, to setting up colonies on the Moon and Mars. Although I doubt the NASA universe will be able to compete with online fantasies such as Second Life or World of Warcraft, it may invigorate space science outreach to the largest audience available. A worthy project in my view, Astroengine will be watching developments very closely.

Then, yesterday, GearCrave posted an article about the development of a “5-sense virtual reality system”. We all remember those cumbersome head boxes that promised to be the “dawn of a new age” in computer visualization back in the ’80’s and ’90’s. Unfortunately, little had changed as the hardware simply wasn’t there to display anything close to a “virtual reality” (giving the user a bout of nausea and unrealistic graphics). Also, the user feedback was very one-dimensional. However, as time has moved on, and the gaming industry has driven graphic hardware into a new era, we suddenly have a suite of user feedback systems (such as a rumbling joypad or the sense of touch through a special glove). Now there is the desire to move from the 2D TV screen, immersing the user inside a more realistic “virtual reality”. In fact, this new development provides user feedback via several senses: sight, sound, smell, taste and feelings.

Researchers from York and Warwick universities are developing the ultimate virtual reality headset, that won’t directly manipulate the brain (via electrode-induced agony) but manipulate the senses to induce an emotional response. This will be achieved through the use of hi-tech smell and taste sprayers. Also, the visual element will be stunning. The screen will naturally be in high definition, with far greater light and dark limits. To say the view will be crisp is an understatement.

So, we now have the ability to create our own virtual universes. We are fast approaching the point where fully-immersive virtual reality may be a possibility (although the brain can be tough to trick at times, the VR would have to be VERY good to fool us wily humans). Computer systems are becoming so advanced that “graphics” may be a bad description of the world you are participating in looks like you are in a real world. Also, the spin-off technology from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) could effectively make the Internet transparent (the only limit on speed would be the speed of light when uploading/downloading files, imagine that).

Personally, I cannot imagine a future where mankind is stuck on Earth, just sending probes to do the exploration of space for us, but say if these robotic missions could do something a little more than basic reconnaissance missions? What if the unmanned rovers, landers and satellites become so advanced that they can collect all the data we’ll ever need from the planets in the Solar System? This data could be used in a sufficiently advanced distributed network on Earth, allowing Internet users to collaborate (in the spirit of existing online projects such as Galaxy Zoo, but powered by a fully immersive MMORPG system), exploring a virtual reality universe based primarily on real data, but with intelligent algorithms that fill in the details and known physical/biological processes. However, in this virtual reality, users will be able to see, smell, hear, taste and feel, with physical feedback mechanisms.

This kind of project would have a vast array of practical applications; from doing science with real data, to training astronauts/settlers ahead of a real mission to Mars. However, there are two mind-bending philosophical questions that are attached to this eventuality: