No, An Alien Radio Signal Has Not Been Detected

Schematic showing Sagittarius A crossing the beam of Indlebe on 28 July 2008 (Stuart MacPherson)
Schematic showing Sagittarius A crossing the beam of Indlebe on 28 July 2008 (Stuart MacPherson)

Some great news from Durban University of Technology in South Africa, their newly built Indlebe Radio Telescope detected its first signal late last month. “On the evening of 28th July 2008, at 21h14 local time the Indlebe Radio Telescope, situated on the Steve Biko campus of the Durban University of Technology (DUT), successfully detected its first radio source from beyond the solar system. A strong source was detected from Sagittarius A, the centre of the Milky Way Galaxy, approximately 30 thousand light years away,” says the statement by Stuart MacPherson. This will be an invaluable resource for students and research projects; a great achievement.

Although this should be the focus of attention, it looks like social bookmarking may have struck again. The DUT announcement was picked up by Digg and the Internet population drew their own conclusions. Interestingly, the Russian mainstream media was listening and interpreted the Internet buzz as proof that an alien radio signal had been detected in the centre of our galaxy…
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Poll: Should Pluto be Re-Instated as a Planet?

Snorg Tees advertisement: "Its okay Pluto, I'm not a planet either"

In 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) decided to re-classify what constituted a planet. Firstly the candidate must orbit the Sun. Secondly, it must be spherical (none of those asteroid-potato shapes please). Thirdly, it must clear its orbital path of junk. As soon as these three planetary characteristics were specified by the IAU (who is responsible for planet-naming and astronomy nomenclature), Pluto found itself orbiting without a planetary licence and promptly got demoted to a “dwarf planet.” This decision caused two years of arguing and public outcry until the IAU dubbed any Pluto-like bodies as “Plutoids.” This move by the IAU was seen as an affront to a member of the Solar System’s ninth planet, which had over 70 years of proud history (after all, it was thought to be the mysterious Planet X at one point). So next week, the world’s leading astronomers and planetary scientists are gathering in Maryland for a conference addressing the Pluto issue, voicing their frustration at the IAU’s controvercial decision and calling the “Plutoid” classification the Solar System’s “celestial underclass”…
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What is the Higgs Boson?

Artist rendition of Higgs bosons generated after a particle collision. Created for Niels Bohr institute by artist-in-residence Mette Høst
Artist rendition of Higgs bosons generated after a particle collision. Created for Niels Bohr institute by artist-in-residence Mette Høst

Billions of Euros have been ploughed into the construction of the largest experiment known in the history of mankind. The Large Hadron Collider (officially due to be “switched on” September 10th 2008) will eventually create proton-proton collision energies near the 14 TeV mark by the end of this decade. This is all highly impressive; already the applications of the LHC appear to be endless, probing smaller and smaller scales with bigger and bigger energies. But how did the LHC secure all that funding? After all, the most expensive piece of lab equipment must be built with a purpose? Although the aims are varied and far-reaching, the LHC has one key task to achieve: Discover the Higgs Boson, the world’s most sought-after particle. If discovered, key theories in particle physics and quantum dynamics will be proven. If it isn’t found by the LHC, perhaps our theories are wrong, and our view of the Universe needs to be revolutionized… or the LHC needs to be more powerful.

Either way, the LHC will revolutionize all facets of physics. But what is the Higgs boson? And why in the hell is it so important?

I’ve read many very interesting articles about the Higgs boson and what its discovery will do for mankind. However, many of these texts are very hard to understand by non-specialists, particularly by the guys-at-the-top (i.e. the politicians who approve vast amounts of funding for physics experiments). The LHC physicists obviously did a very good job on Europe’s leaders so this gargantuan particle accelerator could secure billions of euros/dollars/pounds to be built.

There is a classic physics-politics outreach example that has become synonymous with LHC funding. On trying to acquire UK funding for the LHC project in 1993, physicists had to derive a way of explaining what the Higgs boson was to the UK Science Minister, William Waldegrave. This quasi-political example is wonderfully described by David J. Miller; Bryan Cox also discusses the same occasion in this outstanding TED lecture.

What is the Higgs boson? The Short Answer
Predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics, the Higgs boson is a particle that carries the Higgs field. The Higgs field is theorized to permeate through the entire Universe. As a massless particle passes through the Higgs field, it accumulates it, and the particle gains mass. Therefore, should the Higgs boson be discovered, we’ll know why matter has mass.

What is the Higgs boson? The Long Answer
Firstly we must know what the “Standard Model” is. In quantum physics, there are basically six types of quarks, six types of leptons (all 12 are collectively known as “fermions”) and four bosons. Quarks are the building blocks of all hadrons in the Universe (they are contained inside common hadrons like protons and neutrons) and they can never exist as a single entity in nature. The “glue” that holds hadrons together (thus bonding quarks together) is governed by the “strong force,” a powerful force which acts over very small distances (nucleon-scales). The strong force is delivered by one of the four bosons called the “gluon.” When two quarks combine to form a hadron, the resulting particle is called a “meson“; when three combine, the resulting particle is called a “baryon.”

The Standard Model. Including 6 quarks, 6 leptons and four bosons.
The Standard Model. Including 6 quarks, 6 leptons and four bosons. Source:

In addition to six quarks in the Standard Model, we have six leptons. The electron, muon and tau particles plus their neutrinos; the electron neutrino, muon neutrino and tau neutrino. Add to this the four bosons: photon (electromagnetic force), W and Z bosons (weak force) and gluons (strong force), we have all the components of the Standard Model.

However, there’s something missing. What about gravity? Although very weak on quantum scales, this fundamental force cannot be explained by the Standard Model. The gravitational force is mediated by the hypothetical particle, the graviton.

The Higgs Field
The Standard Model has its shortcomings (such as the non-inclusion of the graviton) but ultimately it has elegantly described many fundamental properties of the quantum and cosmological universe. However, we need to find a way of describing how these Standard Model particles have (and indeed, have no) mass.

Permeating through all the theoretical calculations of the Standard Model is the “Higgs field.” It is predicted to exist, giving quarks and gluons their large masses; but also giving photons and neutrinos little or no mass. The Higgs field forms the basic underlying structure of the Universe; it has to, otherwise “mass” would not exist (if the Universe is indeed governed by the Standard Model).

People evenly distributed in a room, akin to the Higgs field (CERN)
People evenly distributed in a room, akin to the Higgs field (CERN)

As a particle travels through the Higgs field (which can be thought of as a 3D lattice filling the Universe, from the vacuum of space to the centre of stars), it causes a distortion in the field. As it moves, the particle will cause the Higgs field to cluster around the particle. The more clustering there is, the more mass the particle will accumulate. Going back to David J. Miller’s 1993 quasi-political description of the Higgs field, his analogy of the number of people attracted to a powerful politician rings very similar to what actually happens in the Higgs field as a particle passes through it (see the cartoon left and below).

Using the cartoon of Margaret Thatcher, ex-UK Prime Minister, entering a crowded room, suddenly makes sense. As Thatcher enters the room, although the people are evenly distributed across the floor, Thatcher will soon start accumulating delegates wanting to talk to her as she tries to walk. This effect is seen all the time when paparazzi accumulate around a celebrity here in Los Angeles; the longer the celeb walks within the “paparazzi field,” more photographers and reporters accumulate.

Then Thatcher enters the room, people gather, mass increases (CERN)
Then Thatcher enters the room, people gather, mass increases (CERN)

Pretty obvious so far. The Thatcher analogy worked really well in 1993 and the paparazzi analogy works well today. But, critically, what happens when the individual accumulates all these people (i.e. increase mass)? If they are able to travel at the same speed across the room, the whole ensemble will have greater momentum, thus will be harder to slow down.

The Higgs Boson
So going back to our otherwise massless particle travelling through the Higgs field, as it does so, it distorts the surrounding field, causing it to bunch up around the particle, thus giving it mass and therefore momentum. Observations of the weak force (exchanged by the W and Z particles) cannot be explained without the inclusion of the Higgs field.

OK, so we have a “Higgs field,” where does the “Higgs boson” come into it? The Higgs particle is simply the boson that carries the Higgs field. So if we were to dissect a particle (like colliding it inside a particle accelerator), we’d see a Higgs boson carrying the Higgs field. This boson can be called a Higgs particle. If the Higgs particle is just an enhancement in the Higgs field, there could be many different “types” of Higgs particles, of varying energies.

British particle physicist Peter Higgs (as seen in the 1960s), Higgs boson namesake and lead researcher on the Higgs mechanism (Peter Tuffy)
British particle physicist Peter Higgs (as seen in the 1960s), Higgs boson namesake and lead researcher on the Higgs mechanism (Peter Tuffy)

This is where the LHC comes in. We know that the Higgs boson governs the amount of mass a particle can have. It is therefore by definition “massive.” The more massive a particle, the more energy it has (i.e. E = mc2), so in an effort to isolate the Higgs particle, we need a highly energetic collision. Previous particle accelerator experiments have not turned up evidence for the Higgs boson, but this null result sets a lower limit on the mass of the Higgs boson. This currently holds at a rest-mass energy of 114 GeV (meaning the lower limit for the Higgs boson will be greater than 114 GeV). It is hoped that the high energy collisions possible by the LHC will confirm that the Higgs exists at higher masses (predicted in the mass range of 0.1-1 TeV).

So why is the Higgs boson important?
The Higgs boson is the last remaining particle of the Standard Model that has not been observed; all the other fermions and bosons have been proven to exist through experiment. If the LHC does focus enough energy to generate an observable Higgs boson with a mass over 114 GeV, the Standard Model will be complete and we’ll know why matter has mass. Then we will be working on validating the possibility of supersymmetry and string theory… but we’ll leave that for another day…

But does the Higgs boson give hadrons the ability to feel pain? I doubt it…

Special thanks to regular Astroengine reader Hannah from São Paulo, Brazil for suggesting this article, I hope it went to some way of explaining the general nature of the Higgs boson…

Do Hadrons Feel Pain?

Catchy slogan at the protest (BBSpot)
Or else... what? (BBSpot)

Hold on, I’ve just found out some worrying news from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). This mammoth experiment goes online in one month and two days and I don’t think we’ve fully grasped what this machine is going to do.

It will kill hadrons, by their millions.

I know, I felt the same way. What kind of deprived mind would think up such a plan? There we are being told by the physicists that colliding hadrons at high energies will somehow benefit mankind. We are also being told by the doomsayers that the LHC will create a micro black hole, killing us all. But so far there has been little thought for the tiny elemental particles caught in the middle of all this. Do you think they want to be accelerated to the point where they resemble a wave more than a particle? No. Do you think they want to be bashed at high speed, splattering their innards around the inside of a detector chamber? No.

Please, spare a thought for all those innocent quarks, they don’t have a voice…

(Oh dear, here we go again…)
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Last Look at Falcon 1 and its Third SpaceX Launch

Falcon 1, Flight 3 lift off from Kwajalein Atoll, South Pacific (SpaceX)
Falcon 1, Flight 3 lift off from Kwajalein Atoll, South Pacific on Sunday (SpaceX)

Elon Musk has issued another press release today detailing what went wrong on Sunday’s Falcon 1 launch. The third launch of this commercial rocket failed at about 200 km above the Pacific Ocean due to a stage separation problem. The above image shows the Falcon 1 blast-off minutes before disaster. SpaceX remains upbeat however, as the first stage Merlin 1C rocket (built from scratch in-house) performed perfectly and Musk envisions another Falcon launch within a month. One thing’s for sure, space commercialization needs more guys like Musk with enough financial backing and motivation to push for orbital success. The SpaceX day will come and we’ll be watching…

Confirmed! The “Phoenix Affair” Was a Storm in a Teacup

It's a storm. A storm in a teacup.
Its a storm. A storm in a teacup. Source: Photoshop Contest, Artist profile

It was a breaking story that held so much promise: Phoenix uncovering something more “provocative” than discovering water in the search for the “potential for life” on Mars. Unfortunately it would seem the source for Aviation Weekly’s report was either inaccurate or overly enthusiastic (unless NASA really is covering something up, but I really doubt it). It turns out that Friday’s news was more of a pre-emptive scramble to get some incomplete science into the public domain. Phoenix had actually found perchlorate in a MECA sample and the mission scientists were trying to find supporting evidence with one of the TEGA ovens. This is was what caused the delay according to NASA; Phoenix HQ did not want to make a public announcement about this potentially toxic substance until they had corroborative data from a second experiment. Sensible really. However, in the aftermath of the weekend’s frenzy that glittered with conspiracy theories and excitement, Phoenix scientists have vented their frustration at having to disclose incomplete science in an announcement forced by a misunderstanding, rumours and allegations of cover-ups…
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Phoenix Discovery Could be Proof that Life Cannot Thrive on Mars

The Phoenix lander may have disproven the possibility for life on Mars (NASA/JPL/UA)
The Phoenix lander may have disproven the possibility for life on Mars (NASA/JPL/UA)

Oh dear. It’s the possible result that 23% of Astroengine readers (who voted that they wanted Phoenix to find “A strong indicator for the presence of organic compounds” as of August 5th, 3am) did not want to see. According to Phoenix mission control, recent analysis by the MECA instrument on board the lander appears to have discovered something bad hiding in the Martian soil. Perchlorate, a highly oxidizing substance appears to have been detected just under the icy top-layer of the surface, possibly hindering the development of life (certainly the possibility of current life, perhaps past life too). Over the weekend the Internet exploded with reports that we were on the verge of a major discovery, leading to some reports indicating Phoenix had discovered life on the planet (nah, couldn’t happen). However, there were more grounded theories that further evidence for organic compounds may have been found or there was something more compelling than the discovery of water. But no, it looks like the forthcoming press conference (Tuesday, 11am) might have some bad news for us. A chemical that would actually halt the development of life may have been unearthed, possibly hindering the future of manned exploration of the Red Planet…
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Astroengine Goes to Hollywood: “Fly Me to the Moon” Premier

Legendary astronaut and second man on the Moon, Buzz Aldrin. A really nice chap (© Ian O'Neill &
Legendary astronaut and second man on the Moon, Buzz Aldrin. A really nice chap (© Ian O'Neill &

In a very fortunate chain of events, I was asked by Fraser to go to the Directors Guild of America on Sunset Blvd. (LA) for the “Fly Me to the Moon” movie premier. I can’t review the film as yet (we have to wait until the film opens on August 15th for that), but I can give a run-down of who was at the premier and what the new animated feature is all about. Personally, I had a great day, fulfilling my dream of meeting legendary ex-astronaut Buzz Aldrin and legendary British actor Tim Curry…
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Channel 4 Report About LHC Safety (ft. Walter Wagner!)

Working on the LHC (CERN)
Working on the LHC (CERN)

The LHC is set to go online in around two months time and the scientific world waits in anticipation for the first results. However, there are a few who are more concerned than excited for the LHC experiments. On Tuesday night, I was kindly asked to join the LHC debate with the prominent LHC critic, Walter Wagner on Captain Jack’s show Paranormal Radio. To be honest, I really enjoyed the open platform provided for me to ask Walter some questions about his forthcoming lawsuit against the US partners funding CERN. Mr Wagner is far from being a fantasist or “crank” (as I’ve seen unkindly written in some of the media), but his views are more in the realms of speculation, rather than being based on the actual physics predicted to come out of the LHC.

Today, science reporter David Fuller with the UK news channel ITN contacted me to say that he had covered Walter’s story in a news item for Channel 4. He put together a very balanced report that should allay any fears that micro black holes or strangelets could be produced by this awesome experiment in the search for the Higgs boson…
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Gravitational Wave Theory Takes Another Kick in the Teeth

Northern leg of the LIGO facility on the Hanford Reservation (LIGO)
Northern leg of the LIGO facility on the Hanford Reservation (LIGO)

Six years and nearly 400 million dollars later, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) still hasn’t turned up the evidence for gravitational waves. Gravitational waves are predicted by fundamental Einstein general relativity theories, but we haven’t been able to detect them. Is it because the first generation laser interferometers are not sensitive enough? Is it because LIGO needs more time to see through the cosmic noise to root out the gravitational wave signature? This is a deeply worrying non-development for physicists as a null result means that something isn’t quite right. We are certain (in theory) that these waves should be rippling through space-time (after all, massive objects are colliding and exploding all the time throughout the Universe), but if we can’t detect the things in our own cosmic back yard, something must be awry. In a recent publication, LIGO scientists have discussed the lack of evidence for gravitational waves, but remain upbeat that they can still be found…
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