Higgs Party!

Yesterday, July 4th, scientists at CERN announced they had discovered the Higgs boson.  This boson, sometimes referred to as the “God Particle” or the “God Damn Particle” because it was so damn hard to find, was pure theory until yesterday.  The standard model of quantum physics predicted it would exist, but many were skeptical about it.  Even the esteemed Stephen Hawking once offered a bet that it would never be found.

The Higgs boson is part of a larger energy field called the Higgs field, which gives mass to all matter in the universe.  The Higgs field surrounds us and penetrates us… it binds the galaxy together… in other words, scientists have discovered the Force.  Now we just have to learn how to manipulate it with our minds.

Since July 4th is Independence Day here in the United States, I was too busy celebrating America to also celebrate the new particle, so I’ll celebrate today instead.  I’ve gone so far as to buy the Higgs boson a cake.  It seems appropriate.  Since cake is known to add lots of mass to people, surely it contains a great many Higgs bosons.

How are you celebrating the Higgs boson discovery?


Today is my birthday.  You may be wondering how old I am.  To quote Mr. Worf when asked the same question, “I am… old enough.”

Sadly, the one thing I really want—to celebrate my birthday in space—is still not possible.  At least not at any price I can afford.  So I’m counting on you, SpaceX, and you, Virgin Galactic, and you other private space tourism companies to make my birthday wish come true some day if not today.  Keep building your spaceships, keep improving your technology, and as your industry booms keep your promises to gradually lower your prices.  If you guys really want to spoil me, you should look at ways to get me to the Moon or Mars within my lifetime.

I suppose if I can’t go to space this year, an acceptable alternative would be the discovery of the Higgs Boson.  The Higgs Boson is a theoretical particle, sometimes called the God particle, which would explain why other subatomic particles have mass.  CERN, the European nuclear research agency currently leading the search for the elusive boson, has hinted that they’ve found something.  They’re planning to make an announcement in early July.

If nothing else, I am happy I was born in an era with so many exciting advancements in science and technology.  That alone is worth celebrating.

Science Gone Wild

Whether it’s a newly discovered planet, enormous dinosaur fleas, or Virgin Galactic’s latest spaceship design, science news tends to get me excited.  If you’re a regular reader of this blog, it probably gets you excited too.   But sometimes scientists do things that are more amusing than exciting.  Here are a few recent examples.

Last year, scientists working at CERN, a European research facility, measured neutrinos traveling slightly faster than light.  Neutrinos are a somewhat mysterious type of subatomic particle; however, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity said nothing can travel faster than light.   Scientists involved in the experiment now believe a faulty cable gave them inaccurate readings.  So it seems out Einstein was right after all.  For more on this faulty cable, click here.

A scientist from Lithuania has designed a fun, new way to commit suicide.  The Euthanasia Roller Coaster takes victims high into the air then sends them plummeting towards the ground, passing through a series of loops on the way.  The G forces built up during the ride are high enough to be lethal.  As far as I can tell, this roller coaster is only in the design phase, and there are no plans to actually build it.  Click here for more information.

Lastly, a new study claims to prove that rich people are more likely to steal candy from babies than poor people.  It also shows they are more willing to lie or cheat to get ahead in life.  The greed of the rich is now apparently a scientific fact.  I guess the Occupy Wall Street protestors know what they’re talking about.  For more on that, click here.

I read a lot of science news during the course of my day.  Some of it is pretty cool.  Some of it gives me ideas for science fiction stories.  And sometimes it just makes me laugh.  These three stories made me laugh (not all for the same reason).  How about you?  Please leave a comment on your reaction or share some piece of wacky science news of your own.

Dear Higgs Boson

Dear Higgs Boson,

We know you’re there.  We’re very close to finding you.  The standard model of particle physics has predicted your existence for decades, and in every other experiment the standard model’s predictions have been correct.  It’s only a matter of time—less than a year, they say—before your existence is proven as well.

Just recently, some scientists at CERN detected tantalizing new evidence of your existence.  They didn’t observe you, but they did notice the high-energy particles you turned into when you decayed.  They’ll have to repeat the experiment, because those particles might have decayed from something else, but their fancy mathematics is telling them they’ve almost got you.

For scientists, this is all very exciting, but I’m not a scientist.  I’m a science fiction writer, and as a science fiction writer I’m asking you, Higgs Boson, as a personal favor to stay hidden just a little bit longer.  Science fiction depends on the things we don’t know about the universe.  The gaps in our scientific knowledge allow us writers to make stuff up.  Once you’re discovered, analyzed, and understood, we won’t be able to make stuff up about you any more.

It would be even more helpful if it turned out you don’t exist at all.  That would mean the whole standard model is wrong, and we Sci-Fi writers could make up all kinds of crazy, new things.

So come on, Higgs Boson.  Keep being a mystery.

P.S.: Could you please stop calling yourself the “God Particle”?  It’s really pretentious.

Neutrino Engines

In science fiction, traveling faster than light is no big deal.  Everybody’s doing it.  The details of how they do it are… a bit vague.  But scientists at CERN, an international research facility in Europe, say they’ve discovered something that really can travel faster than light: the neutrino.

So does this mean science fiction writers should start building spaceships with neutrino engines?  Not quite yet.  Many physicists are not convinced by the CERN scientists’ claim.  The equipment in the experiment could have been faulty, leading to a false measurement of the neutrinos’ speed.  More tests are required to confirm these findings.

And now we’re learning that some of the scientists involved in the experiment did not want the results published.  Though most of their colleagues felt confident, a few still worried that the measurement was somehow in error.

There are precious few particle accelerators in the world, but I expect scientists will try to replicate the experiment at another location soon.  In the meantime, science fiction writers should stay away from neutrino engines.  In a year or two, we might find out the whole think was a fluke.

For more on CERN’s recent neutrino experiment and the controversy around it, click here.

Atom Smashers

The United States’ largest atom smasher is smashing atoms no more.  I’m sure atoms are very happy about this, but most of the scientific community is disappointed.  In many ways, shutting down the Tevatron Particle Accelerator is like ending the space shuttle program.

The Tevatron had been in service for nearly thirty years and was responsible for many important discoveries in particle physics.  Most people never even heard of it and have no idea why this matters, but without particle physics (a.k.a. quantum mechanics) we wouldn’t have wireless communications, plastic, or most modern drugs.  We wouldn’t even understand DNA if we didn’t know how atoms and the particles inside them work.

The Tevatron cost millions of dollars to build and millions more to operate.  The Department of Energy says they could not secure funding from the federal government to keep it running.

Before the Tevatron closed, it was tantalizingly close to either discovering the Higgs Boson or proving it does not exist—which would change everything we know about physics.  The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Europe is also close.  And another particle accelerator in Europe, run by the same people who run the LHC, recently found evidence that one particle, the neutrino, can travel faster than light—which would also change everything we know about physics.

As an American, I wish the United States still had a large particle accelerator of its own so we could participate in these experiments, but at the same time I’m too excited to worry about patriotism.  One way or another, atom smashers are about to change physics, and when they do all kinds of new technologies will be possible.  The world of tomorrow is coming.

But That’s Impossible, Part 2

The neutrinos that allegedly travelled faster than light would undermine Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, one of the two foundations of modern science.  Quantum mechanics, the other foundation, is also threatened not by a recent discovery but by the lack of a discovery.  The Higgs Boson is still missing.

In quantum mechanics, everything that happens in physics can be explained by the existence of some particle.  Light and electricity are explained by photons.  Radiation is explained by alpha, beta, and gamma particles.  Mass is explained by the Higgs Boson, also known as the “God Particle,” but after years of searching scientists can’t find it.  They’ve tried almost every energy level where they thought it could be and got nothing.

It’s like when you lose your keys.  First, you look in the most likely places, such as the table by the door or under the sofa cushions.  Then you try less likely places until you’re forced to check in the bathtub or the refrigerator.  In the search for the Higgs Boson, scientists are now looking in the bathtubs and refrigerators of science.

The real shocking discovery would be if they fail to find the Higgs all together.  This would be like deciding the reason you can’t find your keys is because they never existed in the first place.  It wouldn’t make sense.

Failing to find the Higgs means our basic understanding of quantum mechanics is wrong.  It can’t be completely wrong, or nuclear power wouldn’t work, but we’ve messed up some detail somewhere, and scientists will have to go through the long and tedious process of finding that small mistake.  Unless they find the Higgs behind the ketchup in the fridge.

Oh, there they are.

For more information on the search for the hunt for the Higgs Boson, click here.  For more on lost keys, click here.

But That’s Impossible, Part 1

Neutrinos are tiny particles with no electric charge and almost no mass.  They drift through the universe, rarely interacting with ordinary matter, possibly doing weird stuff that’s beyond current science’s power to observe.  But damn it, scientists are determined to observe that weird stuff anyway, and recently they got a real surprise.

Researchers at CERN, one of the world’s leading institutions in particle physics, fired some neutrinos down a long tunnel connecting Geneva, Switzerland to a laboratory in Italy.  The neutrinos arrived a fraction of a second sooner than expected.  In fact, they arrived faster than a beam of light would have.

If this is true, it changes everything we know about physics.  Suddenly, Einstein’s theory of relativity is unreliable, and the speed of light is no longer the intergalactic speed limit.  Maybe we could start building faster than light spaceships powered by neutrinos.

Don’t get your hopes up.  More than likely, this is a mistake in the measurements.  I’ve read enough articles about amazing discoveries that turned out to be false alarms, and I think this one’s a false alarm.

However, there is one thing that does travel faster than light, or at least scientists say it could.  The universe is expanding at an increasing rate, and eventually it will expand faster than the speed of light.  Since space is basically nothing, there is no limit to how fast it can grow.

Now if only we could come up with some way to make space shrink or grow at our command… with some special engine, we could warp space to bring distant objects closer, thus overcoming the limitations set by the speed of light.  A “warp engine” like that would be pretty cool.

For more information about the neutrino experiment, click here.  For more on the expanding universe, click here.  In tomorrow’s post, there will be another discovery—or in this case the lack of a discovery—that could also shake the foundations of science.