Archive for Science

The Most Wanted particle, by Jon Butterworth: A Wild, Exciting Ride

Picture of cover of the book, "The Most Wanted Particle"If you want a fly-on-the-wall view of the project that finally discovered the Higgs boson, are you ever in for a ride! It just doesn’t get better than Jon Butterworth’s new book, “Most Wanted Particle: The Inside Story of the Hunt for the Higgs, the Heart of the Future Physics” (or, as it is known more succinctly in the UK and elsewhere, “Smashing Physics: The Inside Story of the Hunt for the Higgs”). Butterworth is a physics professor at University College London and, important for this book, a member of the ATLAS project team at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC). So when he talks about the “inside story,” believe me, he’s not kidding.

He describes the slow buildup to the big discovery so that, sometimes, you almost feel as though you were there yourself. You feel the dismay when, nine days after the LHC is turned on, there is an explosion, and it has to be shut down again till they find the problem and repair it. That takes 14 more months, and you understand why some people begin to wonder whether this gigantic experiment, already several years in the conceiving and building, will ever get off the ground—and whether it was worth the enormous cost. But on July 4, 2012, when the people from the various project teams are gathered together in an auditorium and the leaders understatedly begin to show the most recent data and everyone suddenly realizes what it means—that’s a wonderful day, and you want to leap up and cheer. And maybe cry, too.

Butterworth himself is heavily involved in the ATLAS project to research highly massive particles and particle physics at energies that will take us beyond what is called the Standard Model of physics. Interestingly, he himself began as somewhat sceptical of the Higgs boson and wasn’t sure it would be found. In a way, that adds a whole new layer of authenticity (as though he needed that), because it was the LHC data itself that convinced him. ATLAS and its “sister project,” called CMS, have particle detectors located across the LHC ring from each other. So the results were confirmed twice, independently, making the conclusions strong. Humanity has found the Higgs boson.

While this is a fascinating and exciting book, be prepared: you will need to gird your intellectual loins for this one, because even though it’s a “popular” book, there is a lot of physics detail. If you are not a close follower of these things, it will be easy to get lost in the various particles and what they do, what they decay into and from, whether they have mass or spin—all the quarks and leptons and gluons and Z bosons and photons and W bosons (and let’s not even get started on the antiparticles!)—not to mention charm, up, down, and strange particles. Sometimes, reading Butterworth’s descriptions of all these particles and how they behave and are detected, the best thing you can do is smile blankly and nod and keep reading. Because the basic story is very exciting, and you won’t want to miss a moment of this adventure in which one of the greatest scientific discoveries that have ever been made is brought to vivid life by one of the actual participants.

Most Wanted Particle: The Inside Story of the Hunt for the Higgs, the Heart of the Future Physics, by Jon Butterworth

2015, The Experiment

287 pages USD $33.53/CDN $33.49 (hardcover)

ISBN: 978-1615192458

Four Revolutions: Some Things about Science and Human Nature Never Change

Four RevolutionsEverything you’ve always understood about science being self-correcting, becoming more accurate all the time as new evidence comes in? Well, that’s absolutely true. At least, it is true over the long term. BUT…

According to James Lawrence Powell in his new book, Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences: From Heresy to Truth, if there’s one thing you can count on, it’s that a new, more accurate theory about a pivotal aspect of science will be fought tooth and nail and resisted with considerable vehemence, not to mention ridicule, possibly for decades, until it is rather abruptly and matter-of-factly accepted as the obvious truth. At least, that’s how it was for four of the most important theories in the history of science, relating to the nature and history of the earth itself.

This probably happens with “smaller” theories too, where one scientist clings to an older theory about the mechanisms of an obscure single cell, while another scientist provides evidence for a different mechanism. But when it comes to the Biggies—theories that are foundational, that account for the environment in which billions of other scientific events take place—oh, those are going to be fought over, you’d better believe it.

The four divisions in Powell’s book sum up these theories very nicely: Deep Time (the age of the earth), Continental Drift and Plate Tectonics, Meteorite Impact (did it happen? can it happen again?), and Global Warming. One by one over a century or two, each of these concepts intruded into the scientific world view, each of them, in a way, setting the stage for the next one. And all along the way, geologists, biologists, and physicists resisted them with a passion. What was almost as intriguing as this great drama itself, though, was the cast of characters. As you progress through each section, you find yourself thinking, about some revered geologist or physicist, “What? He resisted THIS one too, despite the evidence?” The same “old guard” or, as time went on, their students, always seemed to dig their heels in and never accept the new evidence.

Apart from giving us a fascinating read in the history of science, Powell shows us two things about human nature in this book. The first is that it is as rampant in scientific endeavour as it is in any other human activity. Yes, some people cling to well-earned reputations and can’t see why the standard answers that have served for so long should suddenly be thrown out. And no doubt there are some big egos. Some of the ego is about not wanting to be shown to be wrong before the entire scientific community. But some of it is also a desire not to see one’s entire life’s work proven erroneous and all to have been for nothing. It’s hardly a surprise that that can be a bitter pill to swallow; nor is it a surprise when someone fights against that.

But another thing Powell shows us about human nature is that the tactics of deniers of a new major theory don’t change much. Opposers always seem to provide weak theories or explanations to try to preserve the old theory, that don’t stand up to the new facts. And when those explanations don’t repel the change, these people resort to personal attacks on those who promote the new theories.

This may sound familiar to those scientists currently bringing forward the evidence for global climate change. But they can take heart that this understanding of the world will likely be considered the standard understanding in just another few years. (Let’s hope the people in government get with the program too, as soon as possible, instead of continuing to cling to dead theory that could ruin the world.)

James Lawrence Powell, having a PhD in geochemistry from MIT, is in a position to know something about this subject. He taught geology at Oberlin College for twenty-some years, and is currently the executive director of the National Physical Science Consortium. He gives us a compelling and thorough tour of the history of some powerful changes in what we know about the world as well as the wrestlings it took to get those changes recognized.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in gaining an understanding of how the self-correcting nature of science works behind the scenes, where the facts and evidence, always win—eventually.

2014, Columbia University Press
384 pages USD $31.50/CDN $35.00 (hardcover)
ISBN: 978-0231164481

A Detour to The Disappearing Spoon

Disappearing Spoon - book cover pic - PhylI may be doing the “Reading Through My Bookcases” thing, but that doesn’t mean I don’t divert from time to time to read something else interesting. I was almost done my Artemis Fowl books (more on them in a future post), and I needed a break. And my birthday came up, and my mom sent some money, and I happened to buy a book that’s been on my TBR list for a long time: The Disappearing Spoon. So I read it.

And listen up, science buffs! It may be four years since it was published, but The Disappearing Spoon, by Sam Kean, is well worth reading, and it’s likely to be timeless. It’s about the periodic table—and yes, you heard me right. This is one of the books that takes the high school foundation of most of our scientific knowledge and actually brings it to life and makes it seem important to our everyday lives.

I’m sure that a lot of us saw the periodic table—that table listing all the known elements of the universe—hanging on the classroom wall in basic science classes or chemistry classes in school. The table organizes the elements in rows and columns that are determined by the things that groups of elements have in common. (Multiples of the same number of protons and neutrons in their nuclei, for example.) But there is way more to that table than just a bunch of lists. When you read Sam Kean describing how these elements were discovered, and then how scientists figured out enough about the elements to organize them into this table, you realize that almost the entire history of science is just sitting there in front of you, calmly waiting in all those rows and all those columns.

I’d always had the impression that most of the elements were just sort of “figured out” while isolated scientists here and there were doing their own experiments. Many of them were, but what I didn’t know was that the science world eventually figured out that there were way more elements out there to discover—there were gaps in the record that indicated that another element should exist between two others, for example—and then the race was on! I didn’t know what jealousies and grudges there could be as one scientist might get credit for discovering an element that another scientist actually discovered first. Oh, the woes of a delay in publication of an academic paper or of its presentation before an august scientific body! There was even a race between famous American and German universities to find new elements, and whenever the Americans found one, the news would make the New York Times.

I suppose we can still distantly relate to that one, can’t we, even though discoveries of new elements are now more theoretical than anything else? Except that we’ve come far enough that we’re now looking for the infinitesimally small particles that underlie those elements. Remember the excitement over the discovery of the Higgs Boson? That sort of thing happened a lot.

Kean gives us many anecdotes that show how fascinating and intriguing the history of the elements has been. Marie Curie got quite a reputation when she used to drag fellow scientists into a closet to show them her experiments with things that glowed in the dark. (The scientists’ wives didn’t take too kindly to this, but you might say that the radioactive elements gave them their eventual revenge by giving Curie aplastic anemia and bringing about her death.) Then there was the story from World War II about the German company (Metallgesellschaft) whose innocent-sounding subsidiary, American Metal, shipped tons and tons of molybdenum from a big mine in Bartlett Mountain in Colorado, to strengthen the huge German guns before the Americans finally stopped the shipments—in 1918.

People have actually hated certain elements, like followers of Gandhi who viewed the government’s requirement of adding iodine to salt (for genuine health purposes) to be just one more colonialist ploy, since common people who mined and sold salt as individuals could not add iodine to their products. People have also loved other elements a bit too much, like those who put toxic mercury into laxatives. What a way to go! And I had no idea that the plentiful aluminum that we easily throw away now used to be the most priceless substance in the world, before Charles Hall figured out how to extract it really cheaply. Put that aluminum tent over your turkey, next Thanksgiving or Christmas, and try to imagine wrapping it instead with a thin sheet of gold. It was like that.

Kean doesn’t deal with each element individually (he’d need 100+ chapters), but he organizes his chapters much a little bit like the periodic table itself is organized. That is, sometimes he deals with elements that are all in the same family, while at other times he talks about elements that all played similar roles. So you get such chapters as, “Elements in Times of War” (molybdenum is in here) or “Political Elements” or “Elements as Money.” The history and the science weave together in a fascinating and—dare I say it?—truly educational way. Chemistry class in high school was never like this! Maybe it should have been.

Oh, and I’m sure you were wondering why the book is called The Disappearing Spoon. You find that out in the chapter where gallium makes its appearance. It’s a silver-looking element that is quite solid at room temperature, but its melting temperature is slightly under 30 degrees Celsius (just below 86 degrees Fahrenheit). Apparently, it used to be a prank in laboratories to mold a teaspoon out of gallium, which would then melt when somebody tried to use it to stir a cup of tea. Oh, those wacky scientists!

I have an advantage in having gone four years since deciding I wanted to read The Disappearing Spoon. Now I can also look forward to reading Kean’s book about DNA, The Violinist’s Thumb, from 2012, as well as his book about how the human brain functions, The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons), published just this year. If those books are anywhere near as educational and informative as this one, they’re going to be a real treat!

Explosion on the Sun

No, that’s not the title of a book, it’s the subject of a short YouTube video I just saw, posted on the Bad Astronomer blog. As the poster says, make the video full-screen to get the amazing effect. And watch the lower right area of the sun. Just stunning.

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