Higgs boson virtually discovered

This is one of the cases where the circumstantial evidence is overwhelmingly convincing – the gun has smoke and fingerprints, we saw the murderer buy it, we saw him take it with him, we know he was at the scene, and we know he wanted to pull the trigger, but we didn’t actually see him fire the gun:

To the layman, the Higgs boson is the “God particle” and a key puzzle piece in the scientific explanation of the origin of the universe. Physicists around the globe—and perhaps elsewhere, given the size of the universe—have invested billions of dollars in research and have been hunting for the Higgs boson for decades.

Researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (or CERN) are expected to announce Wednesday that they have proof of its existence, reports The Associated Press.

The Higgs boson appeared 13.7 billion years ago in the chaos of the Big Bang and turned the flying debris into galaxies, stars and planets.

Its formal discovery, according to a broad scientific consensus, would be the greatest advance in knowledge of the universe in decades and a key to confirming the standard model of physics that explains what gives mass to matter and, by extension, how the universe was formed, according to the AP…

[S]cientists are in a bit of a quagmire, according to the AP. While they appear to have enough evidence to report the existence of the “God particle,” they still hedge on whether to report “a discovery.” It’s a fine line, indeed, but one that scientists will likely continue to debate.

“I agree that any reasonable outside observer would say, ‘It looks like a discovery,'” British theoretical physicist John Ellis, a professor at King’s College London who has worked at CERN since the 1970s, told The Associated Press. “We’ve discovered something which is consistent with being a Higgs.”

I’m actually not sure if my analogy does all this justice. They may be closer than any layman really knows. And since my whole thing is biology, I’m not going to bother trying to dissect it all. I will, however, be ready to post whatever great explanations I do find on this. (I’m look at you, Ethan Siegel.)

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The scale of the Universe versus the complexity of life

I have often found myself contemplating which is more amazing, the sheer scale of the Universe or the complexity of life? It isn’t easy to find an answer, but I’ll do my best to very briefly explain my thinking on this.

Despite my field being biology, and despite finding nothing more amazing on Earth than the evolution and subsequent complexity of life, I have to fall on the side of the size of the Universe. I think I’m going to be in the minority on this one, but I’ve given it some thought. Here is why I think what I do.

It isn’t possible for an individual to know everything about a single field. I’ve had incredible biology professors who have told me that they are lucky to understand 1/3 of what they read in scientific journal articles concerning biology. This is because in order to become an expert on anything, it requires one to focus on a relatively small subset of facts within a field. Just look at how biology breaks down: microbiology, biochemistry, genetics, cell biology, zoology, botany, anatomy, physiology, embryology, evolutionary biology, molecular biology, and so on. This sort of division is going to be true of just about any field. (I can’t think of any exceptions.) How can we expect anyone to understand it all? We simply cannot. But that isn’t to say we can’t understand it all as a species. In principle, we can understand everything that has to do with biology. We can break it down and analyze each bit, no matter how esoteric and specific. That doesn’t mean we necessarily ever will, but there is nothing preventing us from doing so. We have the ability, when we pool all our resources and minds, to understand everything there is to understand about life and its evolution.

I don’t think we can say that same thing about the sheer scale of the Universe. For the sake of argument, I will limit myself to the observable Universe. But right there. Look at what I just did. Without fear of losing any ground in my argument, I limited my scope. Yet my whole point is scope. That’s just how huge the Universe is. And how can anyone truly appreciate that? No human is going to travel any distance from Earth that is notable on the scale of the Universe. Even our space probes that are now on their way to interstellar space have done so little; being impressed by that distance would be like being impressed that an atom moved a tiny fraction of a fraction of a fraction of its radius to the right. I would say to now imagine that analogy increased trillions upon trillions upon trillions upon…of times, but of course you can’t. No one can. We don’t have any way, in our small lives, to really comprehend something like that. The Universe is enormous. Just enormous.

We can pool our minds together as a species and come to a great understanding of all that surrounds us. All our physicists and astronomers and cosmologists can give us a tremendous understanding, via science, of how it all works. They can even describe, with numbers on paper, how large the observable Universe is. They can show us incredible pictures of thousands of galaxies (in just a small sliver of the sky), each with billions of stars and billions of planets. And it really all is wonderful. But no matter how many brilliant minds we put to the task, we can never appreciate the sheer scale of what is. It is, in every meaning of the word, beyond us.

The physics of how cats drink

An unfunded, seemingly just-for-fun study of how cats drink was recently carried out. Results show that they only touch their the surface of their tongues to the water. They use inertia to bring the water into their mouths, closing their jaws before the counter-acting force of gravity takes hold. The rate at which cats lap matters, which is a testament to evolution, of course. Interestingly, one model the researchers used predicted that larger cats would lap at slower rates. It turns out that that is true. But what I find interesting is utilization of social tools by the researchers to find their results.

“It occurred to me that there were some interesting biophysics behind that process,” Stocker said.

So he borrowed a high-speed video camera from his lab and taped Cutta Cutta drinking. With several other curious researchers along for the ride, Stocker analyzed those videos, along with video collected from Zoo New England and YouTube.com videos of lions, tigers and other big cats drinking.

“It seems to be that this is the first study in Science that uses YouTube as part of the research,” Stocker said.

The model also allowed the researchers to predict that larger cats would need to lap slower to strike a balance between the inertia and gravity of the water picked up by their tongues. Sure enough, the videos showed that lions and tigers lap less than 2 times per second, about half the rate of domestic cats.

YouTube, Facebook, Twitter…like it or not, they and their analogues are the future. (And personally, I like it.)

Misleading Science Articles

French, German and Hungarian physicists have taken another step in supporting Einstein’s theory of special relativity.

A brainpower consortium led by Laurent Lellouch of France’s Centre for Theoretical Physics, using some of the world’s mightiest supercomputers, have set down the calculations for estimating the mass of protons and neutrons, the particles at the nucleus of atoms.

According to the conventional model of particle physics, protons and neutrons comprise smaller particles known as quarks, which in turn are bound by gluons.

The odd thing is this: the mass of gluons is zero and the mass of quarks is only five percent. Where, therefore, is the missing 95 percent?

The answer, according to the study published in the US journal Science on Thursday, comes from the energy from the movements and interactions of quarks and gluons.

In other words, energy and mass are equivalent, as Einstein proposed in his Special Theory of Relativity in 1905.

All that is fine. What is misleading is the title of the article:

    e=mc2: 103 years later, Einstein’s proven right

Nothing here has been proven. Science never does that. What is seeks to do is disprove. The hypothesis here is that energy and mass are equivalent. In order to discover this, scientists attempted an experiment that, if falsified, would weaken Einstein’s great discovery. That isn’t what happened. It turns out that energy and mass are equivalent – in this instance. That doesn’t mean that in every instance that that will be the case. We cannot possibly know for certain that if the experiment is run again or a new experiment is created that the results will be the same. This is precisely what occurs in all of science. Evolution is not proven in the scientific sense of the word. Gravity has never been proven. We could find a slew of rabbits and sharks in the pre-Cambrian whose fossils fall up tomorrow, disproving both theories, at the very least disproving them in part.

Of course, it should be noted that we know these events to be vanishingly unlikely because of the strength of both theories; neither (modern) one has been disproven in any way meaningful to their overall statements. Despite the constant attempts of scientists to show these (now) theories to be incorrect, they have failed. These constant failures – which manifest themselves as monumentally beautiful and elegant discoveries, quite unlike anything we should normally call “failures” – are what make hypotheses into theories; they are what enable us to refer to so many worthwhile ideas as facts, even if they are tentative by their very nature. They are the core of science – a way of knowing that never seeks to prove anything.