The Equation

The Equation

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Message Received

As of last night, we have received confirmation that Curiosity, NASA's latest Mars rover, has landed and will begin its two-year mission to find the building blocks of life. For more on the Curiousity's scientific mission, see the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's site.

The following animation illustrating Curiosity's landing sequence is a must-see. Videos like this, with the ability to awe, inspire and induce a public conversation about science, should be a requirement for major science projects from here on.

Alternatively, with commentary

And lastly, follow the link to a haunting (and fictional) short film about a previous Mars mission, the Sojourner and Pathfinder. Packed into this magnificent film is a humanizing look at robots and the difficulties in explaining science to the public - both in translation and the media's self-imposed restrictions on content. This film, "No Message Received", is part of Orbit(film), a series of independent short films each inspired by one of the features of our Solar System.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The four things you'll read about the Higgs Boson

The media has been abuzz with the announcement that both the ATLAS and CMS experiments have found a particle with an energy of 1.25 giga electron-volts, presumed to be the Higgs Boson.   In the aftermath of this announcement, there have emerged certain trends; almost all the articles will tell you one or more of the following things:

1. What the Higgs Boson and Higgs Mechanism is.
I recently had a beer with my grandma, and as grandmas are wont to do, she had clipped an article about the Higgs boson out of a newspaper and wanted me to explain to her what it meant. The best explanation I could come up with is to liken it to another boson, the photon. Within the electromagnetic field - a permeating field, like the Higgs field - there can be oscillations. Visible light is such an oscillation, since it can be thought of as an electromagnetic wave. As many people now know, light can also be thought of as a particle, the photon. The photon is simply the particle manifestation of this oscillation within the electromagnetic field. Photons, obviously, have no mass. This analogy was not shot down when I discussed the Higgs discovery with the Chair of the Physics Department at the University of Wisconsin, so it's what I've continued to go with. 

To explain how the Higgs field interacts, or couples, with other forces and impart mass, a discussion with someone who had also read about the discovery yielded this interesting description: Imagine a party, where you don't know anybody. You can walk through the scene and attract almost no attention. However, if Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were to walk through, the partygoers would certainly give them attention. Thus, different particles (you, Brangelina) passing through the Higgs field (the party) are given different amounts of mass (attention). I wasn't given the source, so I can't credit it, but that seemed to be an apt analogy, especially for this blog. 

2. That the Higgs Boson is a huge victory for particle physics and the standard model.
Which it is. It is also an incredible victory for the scientific process: there is a problem where results don't match explanation, a new explanation is proposed, an experiment is created to test the hypothesis, and results are compared to the hypothesis. In this case, it was a resounding, if expensive, success.

3. That the Higgs Boson represents a disappointment for the physics community.

For scientists, nothing is more exciting than the unknown. Sure, it's great to have your ideas validated, but real science happens when you get something that you didn't expect. This is how scientific paradigms are started and ended; on a philosophical level, it's not that this is how science "advances", but rather you get to try and explain new phenomena, increasing understanding of what is already known. 

To interpret finding the Higgs Boson as a disappointment is grossly premature. The Large Hadron Collider has not yet run at its maximum designed energy, so there may be many quirks of quarks to be found when it does. To state that there is nothing to be gained from this episode is silly.

4. That the Higgs Boson, and more, could have been discovered in America, a decade ago. 

In the late 80s, the US Congress approved the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), a giant particle accelerator to be built in Texas, that would be able to reach energies almost twice what the LHC can. However, due to a number of factors, mostly political, the project was killed in 1993. 

Some of this discussion may seem like whiny jingoism, but it gets at a deeper point: in the last two decades, the United States has greatly reduced its commitment to basic science.

For more information about the SSC, read Daniel Kevles's magnificent piece on the fate of two American Big Science projects - the SSC and the Human Genome Project - in the early 1990s (JSTOR access required). 

Monday, June 25, 2012

GZA and Neil DeGrasse Tyson team up

In the past I've blogged about the relatively weak, but existent, link between popular music and science. The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article about a legendary rapper's attempt to reconcile the two, in two forthcoming albums. Will GZA, formerly of the Wu-Tang Clan, be able to mine science for silver, gold, or platinum? Will it fall mostly on uninterested ears? Will he be able to create something fitting the scope of "the Universe"? Like a good scientist, GZA seems to be asking the right questions, enlisting the proper collaborators for Dark Matter, due out this fall.

Composer and producer Marco Vitali, a Juilliard-trained violinist, is helping to score "Dark Matter." He recalled a recent meeting in which GZA explained the images that the music should convey.
"We talked about frenetic energy, outer space, molecules crashing into each other, organized chaos," Mr. Vitali said. "The grandeur of the fact that the universe was born in a millionth of a second, in this explosion that created billions of stars, these overpowering ideas that are bigger than we can conceive. How do we make the record feel like that?"

I find it illuminating that a high school dropout has, years later, embraced a curiosity for science. According to the article, the project was born out of an experience with a model of Saturn at the American Museum of Natural History; a simple rhyme begets a multi-album project. Hopefully his lyricism and NDT's capacity to elucidate the cosmos are able to create an album worthy of the subject. Either way, he deserves credit for tackling subjects that most most artists can't, or won't. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Behind the "Most Astounding Fact"

In March of 2012, a video about science went viral: Neil DeGrasse Tyson (obviously) shares the "Most Astounding Fact" - that all the atoms in our bodies are made in the end stages of stars - accompanied by a stirring soundtrack and a montage of images showing humans and the heavens. Though it may not have been the first scientifically themed viral video, it took me by surprise. Considering the interview was several years old, were the music and pictures what NDT needed to be a YouTube sensation? Maybe, but the end result is no less moving. If you haven't seen it yet, watch it here before continuing:

Never mind that a least a few atoms of carbon from the carbon dioxide of Hitler's last breath are also in each of us, the sentiment that "we are all stardust" resonates with people. As Tyson says, it helps us - tiny humans on a pale blue dot - place ourselves in the universe. The idea is relatively well-known; even Moby incorporated it  in his song "We Are All Made of Stars". But where did this idea come from ? (Hint: it's not the Bible)

The "most astounding fact" is just the face of unsung science that Tyson has spent effort to inform the public about. Elsewhere, Tyson has suggested that everyone should know the names Margaret Burbidge, Geoffrey Burbidge, Willie Fowler, and Fred Hoyle, the authors of the paper that showed how all the elements needed to make us are themselves made in stellar cores, a paper so famous, it simply is known by the names of it's authors: B2FH. Sadly, most people do not know these names. Part of it is general ignorance of science and scientists, part of it because of Fred Hoyle, last on the paper alphabetically, though first in importance to 20th Century astrophysics. This post is meant to help those whose curiosity was piqued by the video get a deeper understanding of the science and scientists that helped us come to the understanding we have about the origins of the elements that make us. We will get to Hoyle later, first we get to ask, "what is nucleosynthesis?"


Being about 70% water, humans are comprised mostly of hydrogen atoms. But we obviously have many other, heavier, elements in us: calcium, potassium, zinc, iron. In a universe where the vast majority of the atoms are hydrogen or helium, the lightest of elements, we have to ask where the heavier ones came from. Big Bang cosmology allows for the creation of Hydrogen and some Helium, but the Universe would have cooled too quickly to allow the formation of anything heavier. So, where did they come from? Stars have always been the prime candidate in the Big Bang paradigm to produce the rest of the periodic table, since we've known for years that they 1) are hot enough to provide the energies necessary for the fusion of elements and 2) their spectra show that their chemical compositions include trace amounts of metals.

Though fusion reactions are not quite as simple as adding atomic numbers to get new elements, where A+B=C or even A+A=B, it will suffice to say that elements are formed in collisions, where some atoms must combine with either other atoms or fundamental particles to form a new element. Elements, then, are formed in stages, where some cannot be made until others have already been created. Even the most primary stellar fusion reaction, the transformation of hydrogen into helium, must go through the complex proton-proton chain.

But in the 1950's, scientists were puzzled; they couldn't come up with the right equations that led to the formation of key elements, particularly carbon, that would match the frequency with which we find them in the universe.

Why you haven't heard of Fred Hoyle

Fred Hoyle, a British astrophysicist at Cambridge, finally found the missing piece: a new "resonance", or state, for carbon that would allow it to be made in stars in sufficient quantities to explain the abundance of carbon found on Earth. Actually, he predicted it - by reasoning that humans are made from carbon, so there must be a way to create it  - and other scientists found it, exactly as Hoyle had described. This new form of carbon was created by having three alpha-particles combine, rather than, say, two lithium atoms or an alpha particle and a beryllium atom.

With the formation of carbon now explained, Hoyle and his colleagues went on to write the B2FH paper, the keystone of the field of Nucleosynthesis. Their paper was able to account for the creation of all the elements necessary to sustain life on earth, from carbon on up. It was truly a monumental achievement. As Simon Mitton writes in Fred Hoyle: A Life in Science:
The four decided to publish their work as a single encyclopaedic paper, 108 pages in extent [...] They could have produced a series of shorter papers instead [...] had they done so, their work would have lost much of its magisterial quality and would have had less impact. B2FH remains a key paper. It defined the landscape for nuclear astrophysics, establishing a grammar and a lexicon, and providing (sic) an arithmetic and an algebra. (218)

But it was only Fowler who received the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physics for "his theoretical and experimental studies of the nuclear reactions of importance in the formation of the chemical elements in the universe." So why wasn't Hoyle, the godfather of stellar nucleosynthesis, included in the award? Nobel prizes can be shared by at most three people, but the 1983 prize was only given to two - Fowler and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar - so that wasn't the reason. Though nobody knows for sure, it probably had to do with the fact that in addition to being a brilliant scientist, Hoyle was also an obdurate, iconoclastic, stubborn man, whose disagreements with others became legendary both for their intensity and their duration. 

In 1974, Hoyle criticized the decision to award the Nobel to Anthony Hewish for discovering pulsars, when it was his student, Jocelyn Bell, who first noticed them. The 1974 prize was also split between Hewish and British radioastronomer Martin Ryle - chief among Hoyle's rivals. Beyond the 1974 Nobel dispute, which was a public embarrassment for him, Hoyle often clung to ideas long after the consensus had abandoned it, often in the face of overwhelming evidence. He never, even until his death, completely accepted the big bang cosmology, favoring instead a "steady-state" universe, though ironically it was Hoyle who derisively coined the term "big bang". Hoyle also published works alleging that the fossil archaeopteryx was a hoax. Scientists, alas, are no less immune to politics and favor than the rest of us. 

What it all means

We live in an complex and evolving universe. Nucleosynthesis is just a link in the chain of ideas that we can draw from ourselves to the fundamental constants of physics. From those constants comes the ability for nuclei and atoms to form; for disparate atoms to condense into stars under the force of gravity; for elements to be forged in the centers of stars; for those elements to be redistributed into the interstellar medium; and for new stars and planets to coalesce from that medium, rich with the elements necessary to sustain life.

Because I cannot say it better than Neil DeGrasse Tyson, I'll paraphrase him: we are part of the universe and the universe is a part of us.

Enjoy yourself some Moby!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Science Denial: The Denialist's Playbook

Sean Carroll, evolutionary biologist at the University of Wisconsin and VP of Science Education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, provides this interesting list of tactics used by denialists everywhere. His specific example in his keynote talk at Science Denial conference was with chiropractors and their past and present denial of the efficacy of the polio vaccine, but coming up with examples of the exact same strategies that other causes have used is not difficult. Whether through organization or due to some underlying psychology the playbook gets used over and over. As Carroll said, "we have all been here before."  In general order, the denialist, in the face of evidence to the contrary, will:

  1. Doubt the Science.
  2. Question the Scientists' Motive(s) and Integrity.
  3. Magnify legitimate disagreements among scientists and cite "gadflies" as authorities. 
  4. Exaggerate potential harm.
  5. Appeal to personal freedom.
  6. Repudiate on the basis of a key philosophy or ideology.
What quickly becomes apparent, after reaching the sixth strategy, is that the other five are simply smokescreens. Most true denialists are not interested in the facts (a major theme of the conference). But in all cases of denial, even where people seem to be well-meaning, the scientific evidence is in direct contradiction to an understanding of how the World works. I will get into the cognitive process - motivated reasoning - that leads to using the first five plays in another post.

How does one get around this and change the internal narrative in an individual? This of course is the holy grail of impactful writing and if anybody really knew, the world would look a lot different.