Sean Carroll on the Higgs, and the future of the Royal Institution

Particle at the End of the UniverseThe other night the Royal Institution had one of the best speakers I have seen there for a long time – Sean Carroll on the LHC and his new book, The Particle at the End of the Universe: the hunt for the Higgs and the discovery of a New World. We had a potted history of particle physics from Democritus through Newton to Laplace and then up to the present day, where we were told that the universe is fields; this is why the Higgs boson is so important. Reality is made of fields, particles are what we see; the quantum mechanics of fields gives us particles.

After a short flirt with quantum field theory we got a short history of our understanding of the nature of the atom, and an explanation of why the weak and strong nuclear forces act over such short distances (and the different reasons in each case).

We learned that the Higgs Field is nonzero, even in empty space; that most of the mass of ordinary matter doesn’t have anything to do with the Higgs Field, but instead comes from the protons and neutrons, and therefore from strong interactions; and that there is still measurable sexual discrimination in physics.

Next came an overview of the Large Hadron Collider and the people involved in the project, including the first mention I’ve heard of the archaeology involved (one of the experiments is on the site of a Roman town). The search for the Higgs was like looking for a piece of hay in a haystack, in a timescale involving the word zeptosecond, but they have found something very like it, a particle with a mass of ~126GeV.

Now the LHC is closing down for two years, but when it comes back it will be looking for evidence of supersymmetry. That’s exciting.

This is the stuff the Royal Institution is so good at. I was at one of their Christmas Lectures, this year on chemistry, probably the last one I will go to as my youngest daughter will be too old next year. Peter Wothers had an experiment using a Tesla coil which they had to film out of sequence, at the end, as in rehearsals it knocked out a lot of RI evacuationtheir equipment.  In June 2010 we were repeatedly evacuated from the lecture theatre as a rather (chemically) violent demonstration was setting off the fire alarm – initially with amused, latterly rather more irritated firemen.

Over the years at the Ri I have seen (among many others) Roger Penrose, Jeff Forshaw, Brian Greene, John Barrow, Martin Rees, Michio Kaku, Simon Schaffer, Frank Close, Alice Roberts, Brian Cox, Eric Laithwaite, Jim Al-Khalili, Manjit Kumar, Ben Miller, Terry Pratchett, Jon Butterworth and Steven Pinker, and in the coming months I’m looking forward to (among others) Jeff Forshaw again, Mark Miodownik, Neil Shubin, Jim Al-Khalili again, and Marcus Brigstocke. There are posts about some of them on this blog. Talks have ranged from asthma treatments to quantum mechanics, the science of music to the geopolitics of food, free will to the Antikythera mechanism, grimoires to infinity; I have extracted my own DNA at the Ri (in a non-sexual way); I have watched a play about Darwin, and one about lady researchers in genetics. They do rather a lot of work with schools. Although I wasn’t too sure about their having talks sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation. I have been to quite a few talks which I haven’t written about, as for various reasons, including pococurantism and lassitude, this blog has been in desuetude.

The Ri has been in Albemarle Street since 1799, and the lectures were so popular that the road became London’s first one-way street due to the large number of carriages arriving. They have been having severe financial difficulties over the last few years, after some apparently rather ill-advised redevelopments were completed just before the economic downturn. There has, apparently, been some improvement, but it would be a great shame if they have to move out of the building in which Faraday demonstrated the electric motor and Curie radiation. I hope they can stay.

[18/1/13] But see this Guardian article. It would appear that the Ri have put their building up for sale.

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Originally posted on Jane Austen's House Museum Blog:

Today is the anniversary of Jane Austen’s birth in 1775 at Steventon in Hampshire. Visitors to the museum will be asked to join in our celebrations, as usual, by being offered a warming cup of coffee and a seasonal mince pie. And exactly one year ago we began this blog. So, to celebrate, we are going to offer a very easy competition with a rather special prize.

The rules are very easy. If you leave a comment to this post, then you will be automatically entered into a draw to win a copy the Chawton Edition of Sense and Sensibility  which has been especially commissioned by the Museum to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the first publication of Sense and Sensibility in 2011.

2012-11-09 15.42.44

This edition includes a facsimile of the first edition of the book that was published by Thomas Egerton in 1811.  All three volumes are bound in one…

View original 191 more words

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The Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books and Inept Guardian Competiton Question

The Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books winner will be announced on the 26th November. The shortlist is:

The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos by Brian Greene; Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everythingby Joshua Foer; My Beautiful Genome by Lone Frank; The Informationby James Gleick; The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker; The Viral Storm by Nathan Wolfe. The only one I’ve read of these is the Steven Pinker, and very good it was as well – as was the talk he gave at the Royal Institution.

I was interested to see that The Guardian is running a competition to win the whole shortlist. I was going to enter, but unfortunately one of the questions is


(Added 27 Nov): I contacted the Guardian this morning and was impressed by the speed of their reply (unless it’s because they were twiddling their thumbs in a state of ennui at the time). The reason for this question is: it’s a joke about bad science. So now the Guardian writer who replied to my email obviously thinks I have no sense of humour, and although I’ll admit I’m surprised it’s a joke, I would suggest that it’s not funny (at all, really, but definitely not in the context), in part because the answer which is supposed to be right isn’t actually correct either, as ‘food which contains no chemicals’ is no food at all.

I think the reason it’s not obviously a joke is also because scientific knowledge among journalists, both print and broadcast, is awfully lacking. The other day I heard the tail of a feature on a news programme on Radio 4 about lunar cycles, and the interviewer asked the interviewee (apparently in all seriousness), something like ‘so that stuff about werewolves, there’s nothing in it?’ She didn’t sound like she was joking, and the subject of the interview answered in all seriousness, but then again, maybe she was. And the majority of the presenters of news programmes on Radio 4 people seem to be mildly proud of their inability to understand pretty basic scientific principles.

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Gravity’s Engines: Caleb Scharf at the Royal Institution

Gravity's EnginesCaleb Scharf  is Director of Columbia University’s Astrobiology Center, and his recent book is Gravity’s Engines: the Other Side of Black Holes; the American edition has the subtitle How Bubble-Blowing Black Holes Rule Galaxies, Stars, and Life in the Cosmos which is more descriptive as well as more alliterative. Last night he gave a very entertaining talk at the Royal Institution based on his book, illustrated with some astonishing images and animations.

I have read quite widely about black holes, and although I am no physicist and have no understanding whatsoever of the mathematics underpinning the theories, I do consider I know a fair bit about them and understand the basic principles. Even so, Caleb Scharf’s inspiring talk caused me to buy a copy of the book at the end of the lecture.

The history of the study of black holes really began in 1767, with the Reverend John Michell postulating ‘dark stars’; his science was wrong, but his concept of a body from which light could not escape wasn’t. It wasn’t until the early twentieth century that physics reached the point where it could not only show that black holes could exist, but explain how – the work of Einstein forming the basis from which Karl Schwarzchild fleshed out the mathematics.

The statistics of black holes are mind-boggling. The Earth would produce a black hole with an event horizon 9mm in diameter; a black hole of ten solar masses would roughly fit inside the M25; the black hole at the centre of our galaxy affects the orbits of proximate stars so that its mass can be estimated at 4.3 million solar masses (this is quite modest compared with some elsewhere in the universe which can be measured in billions of solar masses).

Nearly all galaxies have a supermassive black hole at the centre, which can be detected as the energy of motion of matter falling into them is converted into electromagnetic radiation as the accretion disc orbiting the black hole loses matter across the event horizon, and also because space around black holes is extremely, well, extreme. The enormous mass which is rotating drags spacetime round with it, and being electrically charged produces enormous voltages. This conversion of matter to energy is six times more efficient than nuclear fusion.

The conclusion of the lecture was to ask ‘what does this energy do to the rest of the galaxy’. Recent research has shown that black holes have a fundamental effect on the rest of the universe, and on star and galaxy formation in particular, with black holes belching out bubbles into the atmosphere of their galactic cluster and sending out ripples, sound waves at a frequency a million billion times below anything human hearing can detect, with energies of  1037  Watts. This slows down the growth of galaxies, so the cosmic environment is a product of the co-evolution of black holes and galaxies.

Perhaps most exciting is the discovery that the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way is probably not as inactive as previously thought; an object has been detected falling towards the event horizon, and it will probably reach it in about six months’ time. The black hole at the centre of our galaxy might be due to burp a big bubble quite soon.

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Time Team cancelled by Channel 4, but it may still have a future

Channel 4 announced the cancelling of Time Team this evening, as reported in The Guardian. There is more information on the official Time Team Facebook page, and a response from Tim Taylor.

The series has had its ups and downs lately, but I still think it’s a great shame. Viewing figures were down – could this have anything to do with the asinine scheduling, or rather lack of scheduling, of the last few years? There will be a last series (20) in the winter, and several Specials are lined up. There are also quite a few previous programmes available to watch on 4OD. And the excellent Time Team Digital site is well worth a look.

Added 20 October: I have just found that Wessex Archaeology has an excellent Time Team section on their website, with a large number of proper dig reports available to download.

And a bit later on 20 October: Francis Pryor has a response on his blog In the Long Run. And later still, here’s Channel 4’s Press Release. And on 21 October: Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology among many other things, has a blog post on the subject. I’m sure there will be something in the next issue of the magazine too.

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Jim Al-Khalili’s Paradox at the Royal Institution

ParadoxJim Al-Khalili’s latest book is Paradox: the nine greatest enigmas in science, and he gave a talk based upon it at the Royal Institution this evening.

Probably the most well-known scientific paradox is that of Schrodinger’s Cat, where those who adhere to the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics would say that the hapless pussy is both dead and alive until the box in which it is enclosed is opened. This is the sort of perceived paradox which is only paradoxical until the underlying science is properly understood – in this case, the uncertainty seen in the quantum world decoheres when it is scaled up to the scale of the world we see (or alternatively, the ‘many worlds’ interpretation, as originated by Hugh Everett (father of Mark Oliver Everett, ‘E’ of Eels) would posit a branching into an alternate universe within the multiverse).

Al-Khalili dismissed rather rapidly the logical paradoxes such as ‘This statement is a lie’ as he finds them boring, and there’s not much you can say about them really, unless you’re a logician. I did do a course in mathematical logic many years ago and it was extremely boring – my best result was logically proving that all politicians are crocodiles, although I can’t now remember how I came to that conclusion.

The talk began properly, as does the book, with some apparent paradoxes from probability theory. Probability is often counter-intuitive, and difficult to grasp even when it’s explained well (several years ago there was an article in New Scientist which attempted to explain probability in some depth, but I was floundering by about half way through; there was a more understandable In Our Time on the subject in 2008). So we had a swift trip into the Monty Hall or Game Show Paradox; my favourite paradox of this type is the Birthday Paradox, which gets an explanation in the book.

We were shown how many of the historical so-called paradoxes were resolved as knowledge advanced (as an aside there’s an interesting article on the rate of change of knowledge in last week’s New Scientist): Zeno’s Achilles and the Tortoise, Olbers’ Paradox (first resolved by an unlikely person), and Maxwell and Laplace’s Demons.

The current major outstanding scientific puzzles such as whether we have free will, can a machine ever be conscious, why is there more matter than antimatter, what is dark matter made of, what is dark energy, and what was there before the Big Bang, tend to be just questions rather than paradoxes, although Laplace’s Demon has a direct bearing on the first of these.

The talk was rounded off with Fermi’s Paradox – where are all the aliens? This seemingly trivial question has deeper ramifications, not least regarding the anthropic principle, and subsequently the idea of a multiverse.

Jim Al-Khalili is always eminently listenable to, and although this sell-out lecture at the Royal Institution was quite light, and covered what, to me, were subjects I have previously heard or read in much greater depth, paradoxically I found the talk far too short.

I think the book’s an excellent introduction to the various subjects covered, although the chapters are a somewhat disparate bunch, the fact that they are (or were) paradoxes being the only common ground. A ‘further reading’ list wouldn’t have come amiss either.

His book Quantum: a guide for the perplexed is still, in my mind, his best book. Although the perplexity is deeper by the end of the book.

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Brompton Cemetery and Metamorphosis: Titian 2012

What have the following got in common? GoldenEye, Stormbreaker, and Johnny English; the source of Beatrix Potter’s characters’ names; a purported time machine using ancient Egyptian technology; Emmeline Pankhurst, Brian Glover, John Wisden, Bernard Levin, Samuel Cunard, G A Henty, Samuel Smiles, George Borrow, and Samuel Leigh Sotheby.

Well, I spent some time pondering my mortality yesterday, wandering round Brompton Cemetery, rather overgrown (but in a nice way), with its crumbling mausolea and beheaded monuments. No wonder it’s been featured in a number of films.

The walk from Fulham Broadway underground station is along a typical London street until Chelsea Football Club’s Stamford Bridge looms into view, a rather ugly example of modern architecture. Immediately after this there’s a bridge over the railway line linking Clapham and Willesden Junctions, built over the route of the rather short-lived Kensington Canal, and then the south gates to the cemetery, which covers 16.5 ha.

During the first half of the nineteenth century the population of London was increasing at a vast rate, and the old churchyards were full to (literally) overflowing, and so a series of garden cemeteries were built beyond what were then the edges of the city, Highgate being another famous example. Brompton was designed by Benjamin Baud and consecrated in 1840.central avenue

The layout was designed to resemble a cathedral, with a long central avenue representing the nave, and the chapel the altar. There are two colonnades, one with a bell-tower (the other was never built due to financial restraints), and a great circle of colonnades over catacombs supposedly inspired by St Peter’s piazza in Rome.chapel

colonnade and chapel

There was also a catacomb along the entire west edge of the cemetery with a promenade on top affording views across the canal to the countryside beyond. Most of this was removed when the view changed to the railway with Fulham beyond. Little of Fulham is now visible as Stamford Bridge looms above the boundary.

in the catacomb

As the crisis of corpses worsened there was a variety of hurried legislation which saw Brompton Cemetery nationalised in 1852; it remains the only Crown Cemetery, now administered by the Royal Parks Agency. There is a Friends organisation which among other things raises funds and organises tours.graves

The list of people at the beginning are some of the more well-known of the interred, apparently if you search hard enough (there are in the order of 35,000 monuments) you can find many of Potter’s characters’ names (she lived nearby), and there is a rather tenuous explanation for the time machine – an Egyptian-style mausoleum for which there are no plans lodged, no key to the door, and another monument nearby which has Anubis (representing a soul out of time) sitting on what might be a representation of, and staring at, the mausoleum. There is, of course, a very inventive back-story to this, including Egyptian papyri and a conspiracy theory involving secret plans and murder. And possibly watching Stargate too often.

The cemetery has a large number of listed structures, some of which have been restored, but there’s obviously a lack of funds as many are in a sad and dilapidated state, the one below is better than many.mausoleum

One headstone in particular was particularly moving, ‘In memory of seven of the children of Henry and Lucy Cundell’: Lucy (1843), Patrick (1846), George (April 1848), Henry (December 1848), Eleanor (February 1849), Eva (1864) and Henrietta (1874).the Cundell childrenHenry Pettitt awaiting the invention of the telephone

I left the cemetery by the Main (north) Gate onto an Old Brompton Road which had absolutely no vehicular traffic on it whatsoever, and was almost deserted apart from a few people dressed in those purply Olympic clothes either standing around or sitting on the pavement, and at the junction at the end of the road a couple of people in high-vis jackets stopping traffic from driving down the road as it’s an Olympic VIP route.

Having spent rather longer than I had meant in the cemetery there was only just time to get to my intended goal, the National Gallery for a quick look at the exhibition Metamorphosis: Titian 2012, the stars of which are obviously the paintings by Titian, Diana and Callisto, Diana and Actaeon, and The Death of Actaeon, although I wish he had been better at getting heads to scale with the bodies – some are quite tiny (but I don’t suppose Philip II bothered to look at the heads very often).

The new works of art on offer suffered from the juxtaposition with the three Titians, tending to look a little insubstantial, they were certainly rather forgettable. The Choreographic Room, with a film of the choreographers’ work for the ballets was interesting and my daughter’s favourite bit, and I liked the concept of Mark Wallinger’s Diana, which ‘offers us a contemporary encounter with a living, breathing Diana, while reminding us of the perils of looking’, although while I was waiting to have a peep there was one person who seemed to spend a rather unhealthy amount of time peering in.

The (free) exhibition is on until the 23rd of September, it’s well worth going to just for the Titians – the gallery is also showing Titian’s The Flight Into Egypt until the 19th of August, but be prepared to queue for there are airport levels of security while the Olympics are on.

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