Flight

I haven’t been on many planes in my time.

Only a grand total of 7 so far (odd number because I had to get a connection on my way to the AACR conference in Florida last year!). Many others my age and younger have been on more than that before they’ve celebrated 7 birthdays. When I fly, I’m generally quite overwhelmed by the stress of the airport, but I enjoy the flight itself. Here are some musings about that.

A privilege once reserved for the wealthy. Flights for 50p? Perhaps not, but taking away taxes, fuel and passenger duty, these two flights only cost me £6. It is now so common to fly, but not all of us are well-accustomed to it.

Take-off

The runways are so busy! Air traffic control has their work cut out. Taxi into position…

It’s difficult to compare the acceleration of take-off to anything, perhaps a rollercoaster, or a high-speed train, but you know they’ll (hopefully) stay fixed to their tracks.

Lifting off the tarmac, increasing altitude, staring through the window at the wings – thinking of the engineering. Visible airflows hint at the physics of lift.

No fear

Perhaps some perpetual worry. The duration and frequency of aviation gives reassurance, the technology is well-tested, the years of training. Maths and engineering and chemistry and physics all together to make this possible.

Sunbeams break through the clouds, pointing down at the retreating buildings. Mid-air, this is not my domain. We are born tethered to the ground by gravity, it’s normal only to see birds flying up there. But this huge metal machine allows us to achieve what evolution has taken millennia to give flying creatures.

To the clouds

In England, they so often obscure our view of the Sun, and its of us. But after the houses have become so tiny, the river and lakes all glassy, now the fog of the clouds envelops us and the view disappears.

All is grey but then, suddenly, some light. We emerge above the layer of water vapour that used to be overhead – now below. The tops of the clouds. Something I’d never seen until recently. Surely they were none of my business..?

But there they are, fluffy, like mashed potato. Like candy floss. Higher up still, like a sprawling, infinite glacier. But sometimes, a break in the cloudscape – below it, far below, the land. Man-made features almost indistinguishable now.

Wine & crisps at 20,000 feet.

Over 530 miles per hour. Almost to Paris now – perhaps it would have been even quicker on the train at least to this point. Yes, that train, the one that crosses the sea through a tunnel under the water. As much as I love trains, this is different. Better? Not sure. I can’t spot any animals from here (it’d worry me if I did).

But it has made me think. Is that good?

Who cares?

I’m on holiday.

I scribbled some words down to relax a bit on my most recent foray out of the UK to Geneva (ish) – yes, I went and had a look around CERN! Well, Microcosm anyway.

Left to right: the ATLAS above ground building; in the foyer; LHC model room in Microcosm

Posted in Physics, Travel. Tags: . 1 Comment »

The Future of Science?

Yesterday I went to the Dana Centre, attached to the Science Museum, where we were challenged to listen to a series of presentations and decide to whom we would entrust our scientific future. Or something to that effect! Apparently it was to be like speed-dating, without the dating bit, unless you actually got those signals from someone…

The presentation format, called Pecha Kucha, involves 20-slide presentations from each participant and they’re allowed to spend 20 seconds on each slide. This makes for a fast-paced, info-packed session, particularly good for those of us who tend to tune out when talked at for too long.

I loved it and highly recommend future events to everyone.

I’ll go through the presenters’ content a bit as there was some fascinating stuff, some links worth checking out, and lots of funny and important ideas that deserve to go beyond that room.

Should anyone who spoke see something I’ve got entirely wrong/an important link I’ve missed, do let me know. That was a lot of stuff to take in in such a short time!

—-

1. Andrew Pontzen, Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge

Andrew asked: Is Cosmology Science?

Traditionally ‘science’ means having ideas that lead to experiments, revision of ideas, new experiments and so on.

There are very few actual experiments you can do in terms of cosmology, the LHC being an obvious example.

But the kind of energy levels cosmologists are thinking about, during the time directly after the big bang called inflation, are far higher than those experimentally studied with the LHC; by a factor of 1 x 10^12 (or a thousand billion: 1,000,000,000,000!).

He walks among us, unseen…

The only evidence we have for this kind of energy is in the cosmic background radiation and cosmologists can predict only the likelihood of these patterns relative to others, rather than abolute predictions about their (non-)existence.

Inflation cannot be disproved; a bit like Russell’s teapot, as I understand it. Or, as Andrew theorised – the concept of a magical hedgehog creating the universe! I’ll refer to it as ‘magic hedgehog theory’ or MHT.

Recently a legal ruling in the US established that creationism is not science for this very reason; you cannot disprove it. Can evolution be disproved? Fairly sure most evolutionary biologists would say yes; the discovery of an organism that simply didn’t fit, for example. I should look into this more, but feel free to leave a comment, my more evolutionarily-literate friends.

Is there another way to think of such theories?

Laws and phenomena. MHT has no ‘rules’ associated with it; it’s just a case of going around and saying this and that was created by the great Magic Hedgehog himself (here I think of Eddie…) – based on nothing but the fact that they exist, so it’s not scientific.

Is science just taking big ideas and squashing them down into smaller bite-sized chunks, based on these laws and rules that hold true for everything, as far as we know? The question here is then:

Why should Nature be so compressable?

2. Tania Hershman, writer

Tania’s presentation was fantastic, but not one I can relay here; she’s a writer, inspired by science and scientific news. Her short story involved a physicist meeting with a painter and they discussed abstract ideas around colour and the nature of facts. I recommend checking out her stuff!

3. Jon Butterworth, University College London / Atlas experiment, CERN

Jon did his best to squeeze in a lot of technical details on the current aims of the largest collider in existence and what kind of machines we might see in the future.

Anyone with an interest in racing, skating etc. knows that whenever you bring corners into play, speed is lost. We’re always coming up with ways of getting around that, whether it’s in the tyres, working on your cross-overs or any other speed-conserving tactic. With this in mind, would it be sensible to make a linear collider to stop particles losing energy as they round corners (the LHC being composed of giant circles)?

Not really, as that would be horrifically expensive.

Going back to the racing analogy (Mario Kart Wii/NASCAR fans take note!), there’s drafting; like the reason geese fly in their V-formation. You can also make use of that effect in these kinds of experiments, by firing particles through a plasma (super-heated gas). I won’t pretend to understand any more about how that would work, but I hope you get the general idea.

Perhaps we could also go for a Muon collider, plans for which are in place in Chicago. Muons are heavier than electrons, so considering E=mc^2, you can achieve higher energies with them. The upshot of this is you produce lots of neutrinos so can study those too.

Is the future of science bigger colliders, particles going faster, looking at greater and greater energy levels? The LHC won’t make a black hole, (apart from possibly really tiny ones that only exist for a teeny fraction of a second and won’t destroy anything!) but perhaps we will at some point… ?

4. Chris Binny and Sara

This was a pleasant surprise for me as I used to work with Chris and didn’t know he’d be presenting!

For the non-biologists in the audience, Chris explained the central dogma. DNA makes RNA makes proteins and the proteins do all the work in life, they’re (arguably, says my inner geneticist!) the most interesting molecules.

Cloning technology (that’s making copies of bits of DNA, not people!) has come on leaps and bounds since we discovered DNA; it’s relatively simple to do now and companies have made affordable, effective kits to help us out in the lab.

Now there is the phenomenon of hobbyist labs – news to me – and there are even some in London. People getting together for DIY science.

Chris’ co-presenter Sara described how DIY Bio is making biology accessible to people; you can buy equipment on ebay and there are some entrepeneurial ventures that provide it.

For example, pearlbiotech.com (agarose gel tanks for $200), openpcr.org (PCR machines for $500), lava-amp.com and my personal favourite, biocurious.org (I lol’d at that one).

Check out the London Hackspace if you’re interested!

5. Ralph Cordey, EADS Astrium

We are so much more familiar with our planet now; we’re used to seeing it from space whether as satellite images, weather maps or simulations. We recognise it as our home and have come to think of this as our solar system.

What if we discovered other life? Scientists may be emotionally prepared for this, but are we?

This is not science fiction. Alien ‘bugs’ are a real possibility. Probability, even.

We’re discovering planets around other stars – it made sense that there would be many but until recently we had no proof. Now we do, and there are loads of them.

Perhaps we even think of this galaxy as our Milky Way – but is it? Are we alone? I’m inclined (and excited) to say probably not.

6. Rachael Pearson, University College London

Rachael talked about blindness; whether it’s hereditary (retinitis pigmentosa) or age-related (macular degeneration; AMD), it affects many people and it has long been a goal of medical science to reverse it.

Photoreceptors (the cells in the retina at the back of the eye that detect light) and/or their supporting cells die during retinal degeneration.

Newts and frogs have the ability to regenerate the eye (we can’t, having lost the ability during evolution as our genes have changed from those of our common ancestor with amphibians) so clearly through studying them we hope to understand how they do it and hopefully develop therapies using that knowledge.

Lovely newts

One strategy is transplantation; can these photoreceptor cells be transplanted successfully? So far, in mouse models we’ve seen that the transplanted cells can move into the retina and seem to take hold. But do they work? The pupil reflex was restored so that’s encouraging; but this was only using rod cells, the ones we use to see in low light.

What about cones? The cells we use to see colours in good light. These were also successfully transplanted but we don’t yet know if they work; it’s just a mouse model so far but definitely a promising one.

There is one particularly important consideration; the time at which the donor cells are harvested. They must be at just the right stage of differentiation; a path of cell development from when a cell can ‘decide’ to do any function out of approximately 200 available in the body (pluripotency), through committing to becoming one particular cell type until finally it is fully differentiated and has only that one function.

The stage at which these eye cells are ready to be transplanted occurs in embryos. Obviously this is not ideal due to the controversial nature of embryonic stem cell research (ESCR, as I’ve written about before) and possibility of rejection due to the cells coming from a foreign body (a risk with any such transplant procedure).

So can we make use of adult stem cell (ASC) technology here? Can we de-differentiate already committed cells, make them go backwards in their development, restore their potential to become many other types of cells, and force them down the path to becoming an eye cell?

Personally I’d advocate for the ESC approach at present, but if it’s a possibility that ASCs could be used in this case, it’s certainly worth pursuing.

7. Jenny Rohn, scientist and blogger

Jenny wanted to convince the audience that science needs our help; the way it is perceived by the public and, probably more importantly, politicians, must improve if we’re going to see a future worth having.

Looking back to the thousands of bodies lined up in 1918, the fatalities of that year’s flu pandemic, compared to the ability to walk into our GPs and get a vaccination now – who would not be impressed by the power of science to change the way we live our lives?

It’s taken less than 100 years to reach that point. What about climate change, feeding our growing population (which we’re currently failing at spectacularly),

all the other problems we face, which scientific research could help us with?

Fund the blue-sky research too!

Jenny argues that the creativity of scientists should not be stifled. This is what policy-makers seem to want to do, though, by wishing to fund only “commercially-useful” science. What is that? This kind of attitude does not work.

Tim Berners-Lee did not set out to invent the internet when he was tinkering with ideas to make life easier for himself and his colleagues at CERN. But now look at what we have.

Consider from the time when antibodies were discovered to the present, when many therapies use antibodies, including one close to my own work; Avastin (or bevacizumab), an anti-blood-vessel drug used to treat cancer (and other diseases).

You never know when, from who or where the next breakthrough will come – it’s impossible to know. Often it takes decades to realise the potential and significance of discoveries. Science does not work the way politicians would like and they must realise this or our scientific future will remain bleak.

Paul Nurse is a fantastic scientist with an impressive career, but he’s wrong in his desire to focus funding on ‘excellent individuals’ – who are these people, how are they identified exactly? Looking at his own initial publications, you’d not single him out as a future Nobel laureate. You can’t tell who’s going to be the next big thing; the whole idea is inherently flawed.

Jenny started the Science is Vital campaign, which seems to have had a huge impact on our politicians’ views already – from threatened 25% funding cuts we’ve been promoted to a freeze (still a cut in real-terms, but it’s far better than we thought it was going to be).

Still, considering other countries are increasing science funding, because they know how important it is for the economy and their ability to compete in the global market, we should be ashamed of this. Our science is world-class, despite our tiny budget.

Think what the future of British science would be if we could convince the government to give it the support it needs and deserves.

8. Sophie Scott, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience

MRI scans have revolutionised our ability to the study the brain.

Sophie explained how our brains are ‘plastic’ with respect to sound; for example, every time we hear a new person speak, we adjust to their particular voice and apply what we know about language to their sounds in order to understand them.

Cochlear implants have been used since the 70s to improve people’s sense of hearing, to varying degrees.

The changes in the brain associated with adult hearing loss and stroke are very different from those in children born deaf. We don’t yet fully understand how the brain works in these various cases, but work is ongoing to do so so that effective hearing restoration therapy can be developed.

Interesting observed phenomena can give us clues to the causes and effects of neural damage and how these affect hearing. There are visible differences between the brains of people who perceive sounds very precisely, for example, such as those who have exceptional ability to recognise and reproduce accents.

Sophie left us with a very intriguing final thought; considering we are social primates, with others in our order using social grooming to bond and communicate and we no longer really do so – have we replaced grooming with language?

8. Anders Sandberg, Future of Humanity Institute

While it may be the case that:

All science is either physics or stamp collecting.

- Ernest Rutherford

Stamp-collecting in science is important!

Anders asks, will the scientists of the future be cyborgs? Not necessarily in terms of implants, but the tools we use. I’d be inclined to say that it’s already the case; we can’t do much of what we do without our beloved machines!

Papers and patents are not the only factors; we are a collective.

Locutus of Borg

(Are we the borg?!)

We make great use of non-scientists too now; I notice, for example, how many wiki pages I’m linking to in this (a record number, I think!) to give quick and easy access to some background where needed.

Marvellous projects such as Galaxy Zoo and Polymaths were mentioned. Computers are indispensable to us.

Artificial Intelligence may not necessarily journey into the philosophy of life, but it is developing nonetheless.

Better artificial brains could improve our own brains! Or, I wonder, will we end up with that most loved/hated of sci-fi concepts; our Butlerian Jihad, Rise of the Machines, a Matrix? I’ll opt for probably not at the moment.

Anders finished with a great quotation, perfect as an end to the evening – and this post:

Our future is greater than our past.

- Ben Okri

Cake or beer? I’ll have the cake, please.

Yesterday was the Science Blogging Talkfest event – photos from (the very sneaky photographer!) Rebecca Smith here, a couple of which I’ve now stolen (below). So, it was Talkfest and I’m talking in most of the pictures. Makes sense but looking quite ridiculous.

Basically some bloggers/readers of blogs/journalists/editors/Tweeters got together to have cake and tea/beer, discuss science blogging and the universe then drink the local pub dry.

A success, I reckon (even if the aims weren’t too clear, it’s sparked a lot of discussion).

So, after the sparkly cupcakes (which, as Ed Yong pointed out, were probably designed mainly to make everyone look equally ridiculous and break the ice) we sat down to have a Q&A with the panel about the purpose, merits and pitfalls of Science Blogging (and a bit about blogging in general).

The panel

In the hotseats were Alok Jha (Guardian science correspondent), Ed Yong (accomplished science writer), Mark Henderson (Times science editor), Jon Butterworth (CERN & UCL physicist), Petra Boynton (marvellous sex educator) and Andy Lewis (creator of the Quackometer). For Twitter users: @alokjha @edyong209 @markgfh @jonmbutterworth @drpetra & @lecanardnoir.

Before questions, there was a show-and-tell of people’s favourite blogs. These included:

Laelaps – a blog about excellent dead things (I used to want to be a paleontologist actually)

Genetic Future – making genetics issues accessible

Mind Hacks – on phsychology/behaviour and its relevance to everyday stuff & media stories

In the Dark – a sometimes-inspired, sometimes-written-after-dinner (not my words!) astronomy blog with personality.

Why Blog?

A question that family and friends often ask, I find.

JB: originally to explain things behind news stories (CERN and the LHC, for example) – but then it just kept going.

PB: because journalists get things wrong and leave out important information. We can bring evidence for people to use in life and get people thinking differently. Now I cover what gets requested.

MH: blogging enables you to reach quite specific audiences that clearly do exist but aren’t usually targeted by the mainstream media. Blogs often comment on stories as they unforld and add “DVD extras” (coined by Ed).

EY: to talk about science and show that it’s interesting. I love writing and explaining, making things easy to understand.

Actually it gives me a physical tingle. I think I’m addicted to it.

- Funny as it was when Ed said this, I think most people agree. It is nice when you manage to explain something that’s quite complicated in a way that elicits some kind of “ohhh, I seeee!” response from people (or indeed just a person).

A point to which most nodded was the fact that blogging enables you to avoid editors – although blogging does have a somewhat unique ability to be continually edited via comments and feedback. Alok stood up for editors later, saying that

A good editor can make your copy 100x better.

But a common Twitter-based reponse to this was along the lines of ‘well you’re f***** if you’ve got a bad one then’.

I re-started my blog, having had the original just-a-diary style one at university, because I missed having an outlet for sharing my views on things (usually that have irritated me) and I wanted to try my hand at communicating science. I mix personal entries with technical stuff because I’ve always presented myself as I am online and I don’t intend this site to be any different. I like socialising, getting to know people – I feel the best way to do that is to let people get to know me, too.

Measuring Impact

Ed told some brilliant stories he’d got from some of his readers simply by asking them why they read his blog and what they got out of it. This included a stay-at-home Dad who had little interest in science until stumbling across his site and others, who then acquired learning about science as a major hobby. Then there was the applause-earning anecdote from a previously fundamentalist christian who’d decided to become a scientist instead after being prompted to ‘think about how we learn things’.

PB: Can you really measure it?

As we discussed at the BSA SciComms conference, ‘impact’ is a difficult concept to define anyway. It’s often personal, rarely quantifiable and probably irrelevant a lot of the time.

I completely agree with Jon and others who said what really matters is your enjoyment. Many people start blogs just because they like writing and communicating with people, getting their opinions out, expressing themselves.

Alok, Ed, Alice Bell, Mark, Petra, Jon and Andy

Part of the reason I do it is that I like thinking about various issues (sometimes important, sometimes really not) and a lot of the time it seems people aren’t up for a serious discussion in person. This way, you can get down all your thoughts and it’s likely that someone out there on the web will want to engage with you. Message boards have always been good for this; chat rooms, even Facebook.

Don’t let anyone tell you blogging is trivial

Said Ed, following his impressive readers’ stories. Opinions can be changed, things can be achieved that perhaps otherwise would not have. Not everyone blogs in order to change the world, or even what a few people think, but if you are – go for it!

Anyone part of the libel reform campaign probably feels part of something effective; also 10:23, the Quacklash (which I shall hopefully write about shortly) and other achievements. Sure blogging isn’t the only effector but it’s definitely a force.

Unfortunately, as was conceded at the end of the event, not always for good.

The internet is (for the most part) a free space where anyone can say what they want. That, of course, means that people we’d rather not hear from, whose influence will never be positive, can do their share of misinforming and opinion-shifting.

‘Climategate’ is a shining example.

Tweeting to Distraction

So the Twitterfall was back with a vengeance at the event; people’s thoughts (including some of the panel’s) were displayed on the walls – we don’t usually see what goes on inside people’s minds but in this case we get some insight.

The list of tweets is available here.

It’s a bit surreal, often funny (found myself sniggering a lot, apologies to the person sitting next to me) but is it really a good thing?

I think (and I know I’m not the only one) that many people were quite distracted by it, to the point where maybe discussions were diminished because people were too busy tapping away and reading the feed. Did we really get anything extra from it? I’m not sure.

Hilarious, when an outbreak of coughing erupted, caused by Stephen Curry’s

Cough if you think Dr Evan Harris needs to be in the Geek calendar

But the problem is, now I can’t remember what was being said when this happened!

I think Twitterfalls are great for intervals and such, good for working out who you know from the Twittersphere and whose hand you’d like to shake, but not sure it’s a good idea during such an event. Any thoughts?

I’ll add the link to the official recording (if it worked!), photos etc. when it’s available.

Edit: Also covered by

@ShaneMcC questions the lack of purpose and Jon Butterworth himself gives more in-depth analysis.

Stephen Curry tackles the wider issue of (perceived?) ‘bland’ scientific prose.

Alice in Galaxyland – giving some tips for those further afield and busy with work (for the record, give me a shout if you need a sofa, fellow skeptics!)

Paula Salgado

Vivienne at Outdoor Science

In the Dark, having picked up on being mentioned as a favourite site!

Science Only Adds; Don’t Cut the Budget!

Judge of a man by his questions rather than by his answers.

- Voltaire

Yesterday evening I attended the 2010 Voltaire Lecture at Conway Hall, a venue that hosts events, discussions and talks on ethical principles and education. Firstly, apologies to physicists for whatever horrible mistakes I may make; feel free to correct me/add necessary info in comments!! My particle physics is limited to 1st yr undergrad chemistry, much of which is now very vague…

This year the speaker was Prof. Brian Cox, winner of the BHA’s 2006 Lord Kelvin award and I can recommend his TED talk as a kind of mini-version. Before he started I was both amused and disappointed upon hearing a remark from behind me to the tune of:

I probably wouldn’t have come if it weren’t a guy off the telly… I liked the programmes, the science is interesting

- bloke in the audience.

Amused by ‘guy off the telly’, encouraged that the work of Brian and others like him are turning the public on to various aspects of science where they may have previously ignored it entirely – but also disappointed that the only reason he would have considered such a talk was due to the TV/celeb aspect. Still, the purpose of the programmes is to inspire so in that sense it’s all good.People often wrongly think that science is just for the exceptionally clever. The Prof. himself only got a D in A level maths! Anyone can do it as long as you have the desire and hopefully more people will as science communication does its job.

Considering the 3 absolutely huge rounds of applause this lecture was given, I think it can safely be described as inspirational too.

Entitled:

The Value of Big Science

Brian started with the issue of the science vote (or #scivote for Tweeps) – our politicians undervalue the contribution that science makes; to the economy, to our lives in general. Popular opinion often seems to be similarly anti-science. I’ve asked this before, but why ARE people more ready to trust crazy quacks than those who know what they’re talking about, for example? There’s a general feeling that science is ‘too clinical’ and ‘lacking emotion’.

It is a huge misconception that science cannot show beauty and this leads people to fill an emotional void with the imaginary.

Brian uses the incredibly apt words of Richard Feynman

I have a friend who’s an artist, and he sometimes takes a view which I don’t agree with. He’ll hold up a flower and say, “Look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. But then he’ll say, “I, as an artist, can see how beautiful a flower is. But you, as a scientist, take it all apart and it becomes dull.” I think he’s kind of nutty. […] There are all kinds of interesting questions that come from a knowledge of science, which only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.

Then we move on to the mysteries of the observable universe. Brian shows a picture of a “common or garden sombrero galaxy” (! below, from Hubble) and the famous Deep Field Image; a tiny ‘blank’ section of the sky as we look at it from Earth that, with a long enough exposure and zoom, can be seen to contain  at least 10,000 galaxies – a fraction of the 100 billion present in the observable universe.

From these and other mind-boggling data it’s been established that the universe is (approx.) 13.7 billion years old. So, when he’s not off  ‘messing about making telly programmes’, Brian works at the LHC at CERN.

What’s the LHC supposed to tell us?

The point of the LHC is to find out what was going on less than 1 billionth of a second after the big bang; the beginning of everything we observe (and hypothesise!*) to exist now.

Brian uses the snowflake as an analogy;  wonderful, fascinating and beautiful natural phenomenon but made only of H2O (water, as if you didn’t know) – and we can see this simply by observing it as it warms on our skin. So, the LHC aims to expose the simplicity of the universe, behind the complexity of what we see now – like seeing the liquid water that forms snowflakes.

Technically, the giant machine accelerates beams of protons (positively-charged nuclear particles) to 99.999999% the speed of light (that’s c in E = mc^2). The beams collide at a rate of 600 million collisions per second at just 1.9 degrees Celsius above absolute zero.

Prof. Cox’s work is in at the ATLAS detector, one of 4 around the machine. It’s 44 metres wide, 22 deep and is 7000 tonnes. It’s big. The LHC has been running at half the maximum capacity, data has already been generated and it’ll continue running as it is now (provided no problems…) for 18-24 months, then the power will be ramped up after it’s had a rest. So, to answer the title question above with yet another question (hence the opening quotation):  the LHC should reveal the answer to…

 

Why do things have mass?

What’s mass? It’s… stuff. We’re not entirely sure. Everything we see (and a lot of stuff we can’t) has mass. The universe is made of teeny tiny things we can’t see, these are represented in the table of elementary particles; that’s the ‘stuff’ we know about (see the pretty table). Gravity particles (‘gravitons’) aren’t in there because gravity is SO weak we can’t really detect it (yes, it’s clearly there, though) but that’s another story for another time, perhaps.

So these things are all of the ‘stuff’ (plus the massless force carriers; photons and gluons) that we know about at the moment. It was just the leftmost four (generation I) for quite some time, until the next two were somewhat stumbled upon (hence ‘strange’, and the exclamation of Isidor Rabi upon the muon’s discovery:

Who ordered that?!

- Generations II and III were a total surprise and we still don’t know why they’re there. They’re the same as I but a tad heavier. This is clearly a pattern (looks like a little periodic table) but we don’t understand it… yet!

I won’t write about the functions of all of these as a) it’s quite hardcore physics, I want to give more of an overview here and b) I’d probably get it a bit wrong anyway ;)  This is probably where a plug for Brian’s book Why does E=mc^2 (And why should we care?) would come in!

All science is either physics or stamp collecting.

- Ernest Rutherford, British chemist & physicist (1871 – 1937) in J. B. Birks “Rutherford at Manchester” (1962)

That table is a stamp collection at the moment. We found some stuff, arranged it in a way that seems to make sense, but we don’t know why it makes sense yet. Now we need to do some more SCIENCE! to find out – that’s what the LHC is about.

The Standard Model - our current best explanation of all the ‘stuff’ – requires the existence of another particle we haven’t yet observed for the equation to work. The extra particle has been named the Higgs Boson and gives all the ‘stuff’ its mass (click on that link for the great Thatcher-enters-a-room-full-of-tories analogy!).

So, things without mass (like photons; light particles) pass through the universe unimpeded, at the speed of light. Massive particles, however, interact with something – *current hypothesis being Higgs particles – and this slows them down, giving them mass. At the end of the talk, a young lad asked, as Brian said, a fantastic question; how can something exist if it’s massless? It’s to do with momentum; you can be massless so long as you travel at c (again, better to read the book!); massive things can’t travel at the speed of light, massless things must.

The LHC will uncover whatever it is that causes mass because the conditions it creates mean the standard model becomes nonsense if no such particle exists. So whatever’s going on… it’ll be revealed.

This was the short and amusing bit devoted to ‘AMG BLACK HOLES!’ people.

Subtracting from Science

So, the economy’s a bit crap. Some politicians think ‘saving money’ by cutting the (already pitiful) science budget is a good idea. I previously reported why this is a bad idea (again as set out by Brian, Dr Evan Harris MP and Nick Dusic). Also uploaded my videos to YouTube now:

So, 40% of our GVA (GDP minus materials costs) comes from higher education-fuelled things; the ‘Knowledge-Intensive Services’. So cutting the Research Councils budget (that includes arts and humanities, non-science peeps) is a good way to cut deficits, why?? Precisely, it isn’t. This is what the fight for the #scivote is about – get politicians to realise the importance of funding science (and that public already has) and push it up the election agenda. I didn’t catch what it was Labour & tories are apparently saying but at this point Brian said

You don’t hear the Lib Dems say it, well, because Evan Harris is wonderful!

And right he is!! Evan is, as we speak, being the voice of reason and opposing the Digital Economy bill (look that up, anyone who likes being able to watch what you want on YouTube and share your photos). Very reassuring that not  *all* MPs are totally useless/corrupt/stupid/wastes of space.

Answering a question at the end re: what we could do to secure funding

It seems our current high ranking in world science is down to the legacy of our universities; the heritage of these great institutions. However, that legacy is quite like our oil reserves – we are living off the past and without new funding the fuel for our scientific output will run out.

So, back to the final part of the talk.

Understanding our place in the Universe

Surely it’s worth the time, the money, the effort of those dedicated enough to do the work? It’s one of the big questions (if not, argues Brian, THE big question) and big science can help us answer it and keep finding more to ask.

People CAN be inspired by science. Some of Brian’s favourite pictures; showing the Earth from various angles in the solar system: from the moon, from beyond Saturn (a tiny dot barely visible between the rings); showing the ice fountains erupting from the moon Enceladus – these elicited audible gasps from those in the audience who had not seen them before. People ARE excited by what’s out there, the beauty of it.

Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot encapsulates all these ideas; why we should appreciate the Earth and its galactic environment and indeed each other. This science isn’t just about what we can’t see, but everything we can see, have ever seen, will ever see. It is not only ‘clinical’, not remote or irrelevant. Far, far from it.

To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

That iconic photo was taken by the Voyager craft, built in the 70s, recording data on tapes and running on 25 Watts of power, when it was turned around at the end of its journey out through our solar system to look back at the Earth, hanging in a sunbeam.

Humphry Davy supported research in the face of opposition back in the 1700s and his words, which Brian quotes to end, are just as relevant today – and highlight a common misconception about science, that in explaining the beautiful things we observe, it leaves us with no more mystery and wonder to appreciate. Not so.

Nothing is so fatal to the progress of the human mind as to suppose that our views of science are ultimate; that there are no mysteries in nature; that our triumphs are complete, and that there are no new worlds to conquer.

And I will add:
Appreciation is a wonderful thing: It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.

- Voltaire

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