Skip navigation

Category Archives: Science

Science Is…

Science is…

Science is hard.

Science is a profession.

Science is a way to understand the world.

Science is being wrong, and still succeeding.

Science isn’t a religion.

Science is the feeling you got seeing “The Pillars of Creation”.

Science isn’t a panacea.

Science is a means, not an end.

Science is the love of wisdom.

Science is a candle in the dark(Thanks Sagan).

Science is a hope for the future.

Science isn’t arrogrant.

Science is wonder.

Science.

Science is…

Well it seems as though we all made it through the first firing the of the Large Hadron Collider.  But before we get complacent, we still have one more hurdle.  They still haven’t actually done any colliding yet.   The beams circulating through the LHC today were only going in one direction, meaning no chance of a collision.   While this isn’t a particularly important point to most people, it is for those who afraid of CERN’s new particle accelerator.   I’ve read estimates on CERN’s site that the first collision may be as early as October.  But who knows.

Looks like we have months more to wait before the “real” threat of the LHC occurs.  One can only wonder how long before we hear forecasts of death by mini-black hole, and it will occur.   As with any of these theories, the proponents never seem to go away, at least in my opinion.   So we will probably be hearing from them up to, and even after, the first collisions. The beauty of the situation is that even if nothing happened last time, there’s always the chance that things may be different. Irrational fear is just that, why would reason change anything? On a side note, it’s all well and good to joke, but the “threat” of simply turning on the LHC elicited death threats. One can’t help but wonder, perhaps somewhat morbidly, what the knowledge that CERN is actually going to do something unique with their new toy will cause.

The end of the world is nigh, or so they say. Tomorrow marks the beginning of the Large Hadron Collider’s career and, more specifically, it’s search for the oft mentioned Higgs boson, a particle so stupendously amazing that some jerk called it the “god particle”. The Large Hadron Collider, LHC, is a particle accelerator, the biggest yet created. It spans the border between France and Switzerland and features a circular tunnel with a circumference of 27km buried at depths ranging between 50 and 175m. The LHC is unique from the other existing particle accelerators in it’s power. Scientific American puts the LHC into perspective by describing just how much of a, if you’ll pardon me, quantum leap this accelerator is when compared with even the most powerful accelerator to date.

Outline of the Large Hadron Collider, via flickr

Outline of the Large Hadron Collider, via flickr

“It starts by producing proton beams of far higher energies than ever before. Its nearly 7,000 magnets, chilled by liquid helium to less than two kelvins to make them superconducting, will steer and focus two beams of protons traveling within a millionth of a percent of the speed of light. Each proton will have about 7 TeV of energy—7,000 times as much energy as a proton at rest has embodied in its mass, courtesy of Einstein’s E = mc2. That is about seven times the energy of the reigning record holder, the Tevatron collider at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill. Equally important, the machine is designed to produce beams with 40 times the intensity, or luminosity, of the Tevatron’s beams. When it is fully loaded and at maximum energy, all the circulating particles will carry energy roughly equal to the kinetic energy of about 900 cars traveling at 100 kilometers per hour, or enough to heat the water for nearly 2,000 liters of coffee.”

But while the LHC is easily in a league of it’s own in terms of it’s power, it is also unique for it’s delays, as well as the fear it has created in the minds of some people. A small group of people have been railing against the LHC, due to the belief that it will cause the end of the universe. The folks over at CERN, the organization in charge of the LHC, have attempted to allay those fears along with the rest of the scientific community. Unfortunately, as a result of the LHC approaching it’s start, some researchers have found themselves the targets of death threats.

Considering all of the hype, and fear, produced by the LHC it is only natural to ask what the potential payoff is. After all, it’s all well and good to parrot lines about the Higgs boson, but what does it really mean. In the end, the LHC offers us a unique opportunity to understand how our universe works at the most fundamental level we know. The true answer is that there is no clear idea of what will be found once the LHC is up, and running at full capacity. The clearest target is, of course, the Higgs boson, but other targets include gravity, and even dark matter. Most important of all, however, is the effect that the LHC might have upon the Standard Model of particle physics.

Atlas particle detector, via flickr

Atlas particle detector, via flickr

Any of the above findings would be enormous in confirming more of the Standard Model, especially finding the Higgs particle. Yet, one can’t help but consider what the lack of such a discovery might mean. If the Higgs particle isn’t found, there is the potential to overturn the Standard Model of particle physics. As Stephen Hawkins pointed out, “I think it will be much more exciting if we don’t find the Higgs. That will show something is wrong, and we need to think again.” It is those moments when things fail that are the most exciting. Failure indicates a deeper truth to be found and more to learn.

No matter how exciting it is to contemplate the potential advances which may come about from the Large Hadron Collider, it’s always useful to remember that science is slow. Tomorrow’s start up merely marks the very beginning. The LHC will only be testing out it’s equipment, merely calibrating. Even if things go well, results most likely won’t be out for a while, up to several months if equipment must be repaired. It’s only the beginning, but who can’t help but be excited at the prospect’s ahead for CERN’s Large Hadron Collider?

Oh, and just in case you’re worried you can always check to make sure you’re alright.

Scientific American, “Large Hadron Collider: The Discovery Machine”

Physorg.com, “Hawkings bets CERN mega-machine won’t find God particle”

Large Hadron Collider, http://lhc.web.cern.ch/lhc/

A little bit of news round up is in order.  Two major news items caught my attention during my perusal of the various news items.   First up, Apple’s World Wide Developers Conference started this monday and featured CEO Steve Jobs’ keynote speech.   As per usual with Apple conferences, the internet was abuz with rumors and hype surrounding the potential new porducts that might be unveiled.   Despite my complete lack of a mac, and perhaps due to my current interest in a macbook pro, I sat in on the Gizmodo and Engadget live coverage of the keynote speech.   What ensued can only be described as a string of completely uninteresting revelations.  There’s going to be a new version of OS X eventually?  Well duh…   And it’s going to be called Snow Leoperd?   Ok.   Look! Iphone games, medical apps, et cetera.  Perhaps the strangest app of all though was an ebay app(are you too impatient to just log in to the web based ebay?).   The mobileme(.mac 2.0) seemed vaguely interesting, though it would seem to make more sense to see what free cloud based apps show up to compete with it.   I’ve personally voiced my own apathy towards cloud based solutions, but I must admit I can see benefits to the use of some of the apps shown off in mobile me…though I can’t help but ask if Google couldn’t do the same thing minus the cost.   Finally, there was the big announcement of the day, a 3G or HSDPA, based iphone.   I’m sure this, along with the announced price cut for the iphone, excited quite a few.  But I must ask…so what?   The iphone is still locked to AT&T, which requires any non AT&T customer to pay several hundred to just get out of their old contract.  Going along with that complaint, I wonder why would you buy an iphone if you could get, for example, a new Blackberry Bold, HTC Touch Pro, or any number of other smartphones without having to replace your current provider, especially if that provider offer you good reception?   In the end, the keynote speech for WWDC fell flat.  I think Paul Thurrot put it best when he described the speech as “Microsoftesque”.

Going from the boring to the inane, we have the “Green our Vaccine” rally.   One of the organizers, the strangely labeled TACA or Talk About Curing Autism, (Haven’t we been doing that?) features a recap of the rally which took place June 4th in Washington D.C.   The anti-vaccine, or anti-toxin, movement is certainly nothing new, but it has certainly been aided by the influx of celebrity support. The rally itself featured such notables as Jim Carey, Robert Kennedy Jr., and Jenny McCarthy.   The movement has traditionally consisted of attacks against vaccines for ingredients, such as thiomersal which is a preservative which contained mercury, which they claimed to have caused autism in their child.   All of this sounds very scary especially when you mention chemicals like mercury being in vaccines.  The cold blast of reality is that there is no evidence that these chemicals cause autism.

In general, the movement tends to describe itself as being against any “toxins” being in vaccines.  I would ask, facetiously, who is FOR placing toxins in vaccines?   But that point being put aside, I imagine these people are well meaning but mistaken in their beliefs.  What’s more troubling is how the movement seems to be more interested in eliminating vaccines in general, rather than concerned with certain non-essential ingredients.

David Gorski of the Science-based Medicine Blog has a great write up about the event, the “controversy” and the truth about vaccine safety.   What’s interesting about this rally is how it shows the evolution away from the failing argument that mercury causes autism towards the more general anti-toxins argument.   I don’t think this is all that surprising.  The use of the anti-toxins argument is used throughout the pseudo-sciences.   The argument often that we’re ingesting too many toxins and we need to get rid of them in order to allow our bodies to heal naturally.   As if that wasn’t bad enough though, they’re combining the anti-toxin message with a “green” or all-natural message in some cases.  Consider a quote from a mother of two autistic children featured in an article via the science-based medicine blog found here.   “But Mason, who has two autistic children, warns that autism is on the rise, and that something has to change. ‘ideally the legislators would enact legislation that would force companies to use natural ingredients‘, she argues. ‘Not what they’re using now.'”   What is this ideal world which she is positing?   While I obviously feel for her and understand that she’s sincere in her beliefs and desires, I can’t help but point out that ingredients being natural doesn’t make them better.  After all consider that mercury and lead are natural but are in fact toxic to humans.

In the end it’s hard to not feel for the troubles which a lot of these mothers have faced, including the heart rending feeling that they might have been directly responsible for their child’s autism.   However we shouldn’t ignore that there are people trying to eliminate childhood vaccines, which are responsible for saving many lives from diseases, with a campaign which is thoroughly lacking in any real scientific evidence.  The best scientific argument they had was that mercury caused autism and that has been investigated and shown to lack any evidence.   After that, all that is left is faux green, faux consumer choice, and faux science.

Banner from \

Image borrowed from Science-based Medicine Blog

On a lighter note I’d like to submit Jim Carey’s analogy.  When I read this, it simply floored me.  I have a degree in literature and, really, this is probably one of the best analogies ever.   “If on the way to a burning building a fire engine ran people over, we wouldn’t stop using fire engines. We would just ask them to slow down a bit. Well it’s time to tell the CDC and the AAP that it’s time to slow the fire engine down. People are getting hurt on the way to the fire.”   Truer words have n’er been spoke.   Oh.  And I’m being sarcastic.