Purely a figment of your imagination

What amuses, annoys, concerns or otherwise interests me – Noodlemaz

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.

Sombrero Galaxy - Hubble Telescope

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 with 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.

snowflake!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. Edit 2015: now #tellthemSiV!

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


Author: noodlemaz

I prefer to think of myself as a realist rather than a pessimist, but perhaps that's just optimistic. Honest, atheist, scientist, feminist.

4 thoughts on “Science Only Adds; Don’t Cut the Budget!

  1. BHA has now uploaded the whole lot, plus interview!

  2. Pingback: BSA SciComms Conference 2010 (Part 1) « Purely a figment of your imagination

  3. Pingback: The Future of Science? « Purely a figment of your imagination

  4. Pingback: Charity Challenges | Purely a figment of your imagination

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