Archive for the ‘physics’ Category

Nobel Prize Winner Sees Promise in Collider; No Doomsday Expected

Sep08

Fred Wilczek

Frank Wilczek, a Nobel Prize winner and MIT physicist is one of many scientists looking forward to what the Large Hadron Collider will reveal. (Credit: Nuño Dominguez)

On Wednesday, the world’s largest particle collider will go online. With all the bells and whistles now attached, the $9-billion, 16.5-mile long beast of a machine, dubbed the Large Hadron Collider, will soon be smashing protons under conditions mimicking the chaos after the Big Bang. After analyzing the crashes, scientists expect to find evidence as to what holds the universe together.

But not everyone is excited. Amid the celebration are whispers of certain doom.  Scientists involved in the project are even receiving death threats from anonymous citizens hoping to stop the collider from going live. One of the recipients is Nobel Prize-winning physicist and MIT professor Frank Wilczek, who explained the collider’s promise and controversy to Publico reporter and Science Metropolis correspondent Nuño Dominguez.

Q: WHAT NEW INFORMATION MAY COME FROM THE COLLIDER?

A: Our modern theory of fundamental physics, called the standard model, is very well tested, but it’s based on a very strange idea that hasn’t been tested properly. It’s the idea that what we perceive as empty space is, in reality, not empty at all. Instead, empty space is full of something called Higg’s condensate, which gives mass to particles and slows things down.

An analogy I like to make is if we were fish, and we were always in the water, we wouldn’t think the water has anything special. We would think about it as empty space. [Human beings] are immersed in something like an ocean. The step that the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] will take is that it will tell us what this sea is made out of.

Q: HOW WILL THE RESULTS IMPACT EVERYDAY LIFE?

A: It’s an opportunity to expand your appreciation of nature, of God if you’d like. One definition of religion is believing in things you don’t see. Well, here we are presenting you with lots of things you don’t see in everyday life and giving you ideas that the world is a bigger and better place that appears in the surface.

Q: THERE HAS BEEN BUZZ THAT THE COLLIDER COULD CREATE DANGEROUS BLACK HOLES. ARE THESE ARGUEMNTS WELL-FOUNDED?

A: I don’t think any sensible researchers have proposed that [a black hole] could swallow the earth. It’s very, very speculative that some teeny-weeny black holes could be formed at the LHC. What has to be emphasized is that the word black hole used for these objects really gives a wrong impression. It’s just like saying elephants are animals and amoeba are animals too. It’s true that they’re both animals, but they have very different properties and if you worry about getting trampled by an amoeba, you are thinking the wrong way.

It’s similar here. Black holes that could be produced at the LHC are smaller than a proton. They are really, really small and furthermore they are really, really unstable. You shouldn’t think of gigantic objects that will swallow the earth that people would helplessly fall into, it’s not that at all. It’s just highly unstable objects that are not so different from other elementary particles. 

Q: IS IT TRUE THAT YOU HAVE RECEIVED DEATH THREATS ABOUT THE START OF THE LHC? 

A: Yes it is. I believe it’s a mentally unstable individual. This has been going on for many months. He has called other people. He is suggesting that we are reckless and this is a large conspiracy to endanger the earth because either we don’t care or we actually we want to destroy the earth because we are just evil.

Q: DO YOU THINK HE IS A SCIENTIST? 

A: No.

Q: DO YOU THINK THIS REPRESESENTS AN OPPOSITION TO SCIENCE?

A: There has always been, at some level, fear of the unknown associated with science. I think that in modern times it was triggered by the development of nuclear weapons, which are scary and very powerful. There are all sorts of frightening stories about biological weapons, chemical weapons. They are legitimate concerns and it gets mixed up with genetic engineering and climate change, biotechnology.

I don’t want to destroy the world either. I have a very happy life. I have a very nice family and care about my children. You know thousand of people are working at CERN and very, very few of them are mad scientist or evil people. They’re normal people with families and concerns about the future

Q: WHERE WILL YOU BE WHEN THE COLLIDER STARTS RUNNING?

A:  [Laughs.] I’ll be in bed probably. It would be a milestone for the machine, but in terms of new discoveries in physics, they are not going to happen right away. It’s going to be a process.

Q: WHAT IF THE COLLIDER CONTRADICTS YOUR THEORIES?

A: I’m hoping for the best, but it wouldn’t be science if nature doesn’t get the last word. Part of what make this exciting is the possibility that it could not work. I’ve already gotten the Nobel Prize so, [laughs,] I like that none of this would take that away, but it would be really nice to have these later ideas confirmed and then we can build on them.  

*** A version of this story, by interviewer Nuño Dominguez, was published in the September 10 edition of the Spanish newspaper Publico.

Posted by Joseph, under physics  |  Date: September 8, 2008
12 Comments »

Super Science

May13

If MIT Physics Professor Max Tegmark had superpowers, he wouldn’t use them to fight villains, he’d go sightseeing.

“What if I had telescopic vision, like Power Girl or Hyperion?” Dr. Tegmark asked an audience attending a special screening of “Superman,” at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline.

“I’d gaze up into the sky,” he answered. And with a click of his mouse, a three-dimensional map of the universe was projected on the movie screen.

Dr. Tegmark spoke about the science of superheroes as part of Coolidge Corner Theater’s bi-annual series, “Science on Screen,” which concluded its spring run last night. Each movie is paired with a local scientist, who goes into detail about some of the scientific accuracies the films may leave out.

For “Superman,” Dr. Tegmark tried to figure out the density of the planet Krypton based on how high Superman can jump on Earth, about 660 feet. If the average person can jump 3 feet, then the gravitational pull of the planet Krypton is approximately 100 times that of Earth. Applying this information to Newton’s law of gravity, finds that Krypton must be about a million times denser than the planet Earth, and three times denser than the sun. “It seems like a very interesting place,” Dr. Tegmark said.

He also mentioned that a similar calculation is made in James Kakalios’s book “The Physics of Superheroes,” but is incorrect due to a mathematical error.

Dr. Tegmark’s talk then went into his area of study, astronomy, with a superhero twist. Aside from telescopic vision, his powers would also include teleportation – “to go for a ride in space,” the power to travel through worm holes, and time travel – to see the Big Bang of course.

The irony of the evening was that all of the sightseeing Dr. Tegmark may do with these powers, has already been simulated by the computers he works with. Each of his superhero abilities was illustrated with a virtual voyage through space, from the first billions of years after the Big Bang, to the future of our galaxy, the Milky Way. According to a simulation, three-to-four-billion years from now, it will merge with neighboring galaxy Andromeda.

Astronomers’ understanding of galaxies and stars, a.k.a the super large, is based on mathematics. They look into the past by simply plugging in numbers. “We start with what we know now and calculate backwards in time,” said Dr. Tegmark.

Even compared to X-men’s Wolverine or Robert Downey Jr. in “Iron Man,” the work of scientists is still super cool.

“Science on Screen” at The Coolidge Corner Theater will resume with a new lineup in September.

Photo from iStockPhoto.com.

Posted by Joseph, under physics  |  Date: May 13, 2008
96 Comments »

MIT Professor and Father of Chaos Theory Dies

Apr20

Sad news from MIT. Edward Norton Lorenz, an MIT professor and meteorologist best known for developing what became known as the butterfly effect, died last Wednesday of cancer in his home in Cambridge. He was 90.

With every loss of a prominent scientist or doctor, the obituaries that follow are often exquisite examples of science writing. In the case of Lorenz, The Boston Globe delivers with a clear explanation of the effect chaos theory had on predictability and pop culture.

Ironically, Lorenz happened upon his observation of the butterfly effect by accident. (The term grew out of an academic paper he presented to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1972. After consulting a friend, he entitled the talk: “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?“)

According to the Globe obituary, the butterfly effect refers to tiny changes that could have catastrophic, and often unpredictable consequences. “Exact measurement of all the conditions could be upset by one small event, such as the flap of a gossamer wing.”

Losing a member of the Boston science community not only gives us a moment to reflect on the scientist, but also on how their science affected us. Lorenz’s existence is indirectly responsible for television episodes, (e.g. The Simpsons, Family Guy, Scrubs) and movies, (e.g. The Butterfly Effect, Back to the Future, Run Lola Run ) that use time travel to explore how a small change in the past could affect the future.

He is also responsible for inciting quasi-philosophical inquiry. An anonymous writer from the It’s Over Nine Thousand blog, calls Lorenz a hero. The writer became interested in the butterfly effect and chaos theory as a kid, which had some interesting consequences.

“My science projects were all based off of Chaos Theory (resulting in quite a few failing grades I might add), and I remember getting into many arguments about the theory, not only with my science teachers, but my school principle when I was called down asking why I kept failing my assignments.”

One element of chaos theory holds true, while consequences may be random, there is a pattern. In the case of Lorenz, definable clusters of curiosity.

A memorial service for Edward Lorenz will be held today, April 20, 2008 at 3:00 p.m. at Swedenborg Chapel, 50 Quincy St., Cambridge.

Photo of Professor Lorenz provided by MIT.

Posted by Joseph, under history, physics  |  Date: April 20, 2008
2 Comments »

google

couk