Category Archives: LHC News

The Earth’s Shape and Size? You Can Measure it Yourself — Part 3

In the first post in this series, I showed, using pressure spikes in barometers from around the world, that the pressure wave from the volcano that exploded in the Kingdom of Tonga earlier this month circled the Earth about once every 36 hours (accurate to within 5% or so, which is about two hours). It required only grade school arithmetic to do it, too! That the round-trip time is the same in many different directions provides evidence that the Earth is a sphere, obtained without the need for photographs, expensive travel or even geography!

But as I showed in my second post, it’s too quick to view it as proof of a spherical Earth. There’s a loophole.

What the direction-independence of the pressure wave’s round-trip time proves is that the Earth has some amount of symmetry: if you are standing at the volcano, then no matter in which direction you look, the Earth has the same shape (to within 5% or so). But there are many shapes that have this symmetry, not just a sphere. For instance, an ellipsoid, a gourd, a flat disk or an inverted bowl would all have this symmetry, as long as the Tonga volcano were centrally located: at one end of the ellipsoid or gourd, or in the center of the flat disk or bowl. Even though it’s unlikely that the Tonga volcano would be at such a very special point on a non-spherical Earth, we can’t prove that it’s not the case without more information.

If the Tonga Volcano were located at the end of an ellipsoid, or at the center of a disk or bowl with reflective edges, it would have created pressure spikes with the same pattern as if it were on a sphere. (Image created with Mathematica 11.3.)

As I pointed out, though, the pressure wave from a second volcanic blast of a similar nature, arising from another point on the Earth, wouldn’t show the same independence of direction unless either

  • the Earth’s a sphere, or
  • the Earth’s not a sphere, but the second volcano is located at the exact opposite side of the Earth from the Tonga volcano.

The second possibility is extremely unlikely, especially as the relevant location, southern Algeria, has no volcanoes! So if the round-trip times for a second natural explosion are the same in all directions, that proves the Earth’s a sphere.

Such powerful and dangerous eruptions are rare, fortunately, and so it might seem that we will have to wait a long time to close this loophole. But in fact, we can look to the past, where the famous 1883 explosion of Krakatoa, between the islands of Sumatra and Java in Indonesia, fits the bill. The same types of pressure spikes were observed then as we have observed this month. The only challenge is to find that century-old data.

Pressure spikes, similar to those seen around the world in mid-January, observed in late August 1883 from the Krakatoa blast.

It actually isn’t much of a challenge. The Royal Society, an organization based in London with an outsized role in the history of modern science, spent the years following the blast collecting all the data that we might ever want. And as I realized on Monday night, the full Royal Society report from 1888 is available online, via Google Books and perhaps other sources. It took me five minutes to find the pressure data, and thirty seconds to find the tables that I needed to close the loophole and prove, once and for all, that the Earth’s a nice round ball.

That’s worth thinking about. The Royal Society’s experts had to collect all this data by sending letters to keepers of weather records, located in remote places all around the world. Not only did they need all the details of atmospheric pressure over time following the Krakatoa eruption, they also had to be very careful that they interpreted the timing correctly. In those days, time zones were very new, and weren’t universally adopted, so it would have been very easy to mistake the meaning of any local time marked on the pressure charts. It must have been hard work, prone to errors. On top of this, they couldn’t know exactly when the biggest explosion happened — there were no satellites there to see it, and of the few eyewitnesses, none apparently had a precise clock — so they had to infer the timing of the blast from the pressure data itself.

Meanwhile, while some experts were studying the pressure spikes, other experts were collecting other information about the eruption: the tsunamis, the eruptive history, the materials ejected by the volcano, the optical and electromagnetic effects and the eyewitness reports. By the time everything was collated and ready for public distribution, it was 1888 — over four years later. Copies of the Royal Society report were buried in large public and university libraries, but this 600 page document wasn’t necessarily something you could find at your small town bookstore. Even a few decades ago, it wasn’t the easiest information to obtain quickly.

But that has changed in the era of the internet and of projects such as Google Books. Indeed, what took the Royal Society four years for Krakatoa now takes almost no time at all. For the Tonga volcano, pressure data from many places, including weather stations owned by ordinary people, was reported almost in real time via social media and various websites. That made it easy to show the Earth is probably a sphere within a few days, almost as soon as the data came in. Closing the last loopholes, to really prove the Earth’s a sphere, simply required a short visit to the Great Library in the Cloud. All this can be done by pretty much anyone, including internet-enabled schoolchildren with a science teacher who provides guidance as to what to do and why.

The Krakatoa Report’s Data and the Round Trip Time

So let’s open the pages of the Royal Society report, and see what it contains.

In my first post in this series (and also in the post before that) I pointed out that if you have the pressure data from a certain city and can see the spikes that were generated by the volcano’s pressure wave, then it is simple arithmetic to determine the round-trip travel time T of that bit of pressure wave that traveled from the volcano to that city. If the Earth’s really (approximately) a sphere and the pressure wave moves at an (approximately) constant speed, then the pressure wave will travel uniformly around the Earth, and every location in the world will find the same time T, no matter how far or in what direction relative to the volcano.

More specifically, I pointed out that if you observed, say, four pressure spikes that occurred after the blast by times T1, T2, T3, T4, then there are three ways to measure T. (If you only saw three spikes, then you get two measurements; if only two, as is the most common, then you still get one shot at T.)

  • T3 – T1 = T
  • T4 – T2 = T
  • T1 + T2 = T

The first two relations are easy to understand: T1 is the first pass of the outbound pressure wave, and T3 is the second pass of the outbound wave (while T2 and T4 are the first and second pass of the inbound wave), so the time between T3 and T1 is just the round-trip time T, and the same is true for T4 and T2. The last one is trickier, and I point you to the relevant section of the first post in this series.

For the Tonga volcano explosion, I collected data from nine locations around the world and ended up with about twenty measurements of T, all of which fell between 34 3/4 and 36 3/4 hours. It’s not surprising that there’s some variation. First, it can be hard to say exactly when a pressure spike happened; often each spike is really multiple spikes very close together (for instance, see the second figure here) as the wave goes by, so should you choose the largest spike, or the leading spike, for the timing? The difference can be as big as an hour. The data can also be clouded (heh) by local weather, which can move the pressure around for other reasons, and make the start of the spiking hard to identify. Second, the wave’s speed was surely not exactly constant; it probably varied by a few percent due to temperature variations and other effects that I don’t personally understand. Third, we know the Earth’s not a perfect sphere; it’s slightly squashed at the poles, by about 2 percent — though two percent of 36 hours is about twenty minutes, so that’s relatively small effect. So the fact that the answers are all consistent within a two hour range is actually pretty solid evidence that the Earth’s symmetrical in all directions around Tonga, and probably a sphere.

What about Krakatoa? The Royal Society managed to obtain over forty measurements of pressure readings, most of them with multiple spikes and some with as many as seven. These are arranged in two tables, one showing the odd-numbered spikes (the outgoing pressure wave) and one showing the even-numbered spikes (the returning pressure wave). Careful: the times in their raw data are shown relative to midnight Greenwich Mean Time, not to the Krakatoa blast, which occurred very close to 3:00 Greenwich Mean Time (best estimate being 2:56), so you need to subtract about three hours to obtain T1, T2, etc. That will be important at the end of this section.

Then the authors of this section of the report calculated T3 – T1 (and T5 – T3, etc., which measure later round-trip times) and put that in a table, shown below. (I’ve crossed out a few entries, because the Royal Society questioned the data quality for those cases.) And what did they find for T, the round-trip time for the Krakatoa pressure wave? In location after location, they found something close to 35 – 36 hours — a little more here, a little less there, but essentially the same as what one finds for the Tonga volcano pressure wave.

In the green-boxed columns are the round trip times (for the first, second, and third trips where available) for the outbound pressure wave, as measured in many locations around the world. Note that they show hours with two decimal places, not hours and minutes. I crossed out entries where the Royal Society judged the measurement data (listed elsewhere in the report) to be problematic.

Next the authors calculated T4 – T2 (and T6 – T4, when available) and put that in a table also. Of course they find something close to 35 – 36 hours again, though sometimes a bit less.

Same as the previous figure, but now for the inbound (returning) pressure wave.

The authors then used the data to figure out the timing of the big explosion; if you’re curious how they did that, also just using arithmetic, see this post. We’ll just accept their timing, and with the risk of a small amount of logical circularity, we can calculate T1 + T2, which the Royal Society didn’t do. Let’s look at an example of how this is done from the report’s timing tables.

A small fraction of the timing data tables of the report, showing the times of wave passages relative to midnight Greenwich Mean Time (GMT, or UTC nowadays); the volcano exploded around 2:56 GMT

The Melbourne weather observatory saw the first spike at 8:14 GMT, but since the volcano exploded around 2:56 GMT, we should subtract 2:56 from this number to get T1 = 5:18 . The second spike (the first column of the second table) was at 34:25, and so T2 = 34:25 – 2:56 = 31:29. Adding these two numbers together gives T1 + T2 = 36:47 = 36.78 hours. Repeating this for all the locations with two reliable spikes, we again find 35 – 36 hours, plus or minus an hour or so.

The round-trip times that I obtained by adding the Royal Society’s recorded times for the first and second pressure spikes; locations with data marked as questionable in the report are not shown here, but give similar answers.


In these results, there is some amount of variation, especially in data from North America. The Royal Society authors noticed this, of course, and spent quite a few pages of their report trying to understand it. Apparently the pressure wave moved a little faster in some directions than others, though with variation no more than 10%. Why did this happen? (And why, so far, have we seen no sign of such a large variation in this month’s pressure wave?) I’m certainly not expert enough to say. In fact, I have the impression that atmospheric scientists have been debating the implications of this variation ever since, at least as recently as 2010.

In fact one of the possible advantages of using T1 + T2 to calculate T, aside from the fact that many sites measured two pressure spikes but not as many measured three or more, is that these variations may have tended to cancel out. (For instance, if a northward-moving part of the wave moved faster than average and the southward-moving part moved slower by an equal amount, that would shift T3 – T1 and T4 – T2 but not T1 + T2.) You can see there’s somewhat greater uniformity in my numbers than in the round-trips as calculated in the Royal Society’s tables; but still, round trip times as measured in North America are longer by a few percent.

Nevertheless, for our current purposes, the differences are small. To within 10%, both Tonga and Krakatoa pressure waves indicate that they are at symmetric points on the Earth — and since they’re not on opposite ends of the Earth, this proves the Earth’s a sphere, to 10% or better. Flat Earths are flat out, as are bowl Earths, gourd Earths and highly elliptical Earths.

Moreover, because the round trip times are essentially the same for both eruptions, the Earth apparently hasn’t grown or shrunk, nor have the speeds of pressure waves significantly changed, during the past 140 years. In all that time, only the speed of information has changed, which is why I can write this post within two weeks of the explosion, before the ash has even settled on the ground.

Looking Ahead

We now know, without any loopholes, the shape of the Earth; but what of its size? Since we know the round-trip time T, all we need to determine the Earth’s circumference C is the speed v with which the pressure waves were traveling:

  • C = v T.

We could guess the waves were traveling at sound speed, but apparently that’s really not the right way to think about these huge waves; and in any case sound speed varies with pressure and thus with altitude, and so it’s not at all clear which value for sound speed we would want to use. It would be better to actually measure v directly from the pressure data. We can do this, without assuming the Earth’s a sphere, by looking at how quickly the pressure wave crossed small parts of the world. For the recent explosion, that data is available too, and we’ll use it next time to find v.

(to be continued)

As reproduced in the Royal Society report, one of six drawings of the sunset just west of London on November 26th, 1883, three months after Krakatoa’s eruption. Created by Mr. W. Ascroft.


The Earth’s Shape and Size? You Can Measure it Yourself — Part 2

In my last post, I showed, using only simple arithmetic, that the observed atmospheric effects from the January 15th volcanic explosion in the Kingdom on Tonga are consistent with a round Earth. From the timing of the observed spikes in pressure, seen around the world, one can work out how long the pressure wave took to do a round-trip of our planet. It’s clear that the pressure wave from the eruption moved outward and circled the Earth, moving in all directions over the same amount of time (35-36 hours, to within 5% or so). This uniformity is what we would expect if the Earth’s approximately a sphere and the pressure wave had a roughly constant speed.

But at the end of the post I pointed out that this isn’t yet a proof that the Earth’s spherical; there are loopholes, involving possibilities such as an ellipsoidal Earth with the Tonga eruption at one end. And there’s even a flat version of Earth that we can’t rule out with this data!

So in this post, we’ll look at why most shapes for the Earth are ruled out, see why there’s a loophole — why a small number of non-spherical shapes are still consistent with the data — and look at how we might close that loophole.

A Square Earth

Flat Earth’s aren’t plausible, but they are easy to draw and visualize, so I’m going to start by showing why most (but not quite all) flat Earth’s are inconsistent with the data I used in the last post. Once you see the origins of the inconsistencies, the same principles will apply to other shapes that would be much harder to visualize if you didn’t already know what to look for.

Let’s start with a square Earth (yes, square, not a cube — though a cube would have similar problems). This Earth has edges, and we have to figure out what happens to the pressure wave when it gets there. Leaving aside the obvious difficulty that we have no idea how a square planet would hold on to its atmosphere at the edges, there are three easy options for what happens to the pressure wave at the edge:

  • It disappears.
  • It bounces back (i.e., it reflects).
  • It somehow goes round to the back side, crosses it, and reappears.

Disappearance is ruled out immediately, because then the pressure wave would pass each point on Earth once, whereas the data shows it appears multiple times. So let’s focus on the second possibility, the reflecting square. The problems we’ll find here will also affect the third possibility.

There’s another question we have to answer: where is the volcano inside this square? Well, let’s start with the simplest case, where the volcano is dead center. After we see what’s wrong with that, it will be easy to see that an off-center volcano is even worse.

On a square with reflections, the pressure wave expands and then bounces back from the walls, rather than going all the way around as on a sphere. In other words, a round trip from the volcano to a chosen location and back to the volcano involves some reflections instead of a continuous trip. That’s okay in principle, but what’s not okay can be seen in the Figure below. Trips north-south and east-west have the same length, but trips northeast-southwest and northwest-southeast are longer by a square root of 2, about 40% longer. We would certainly have seen this in the pressure spike data; if north-south trips took 36 hours, then northeast-southwest trips would have taken almost 51 hours.

(Left) On a square Earth with reflective edges and a central volcano, round trip times are different for diagonal paths than for horizontal or vertical paths. (Right) In fact round trips can be extremely long at certain angles.

And actually it’s worse than this, because the reflections would make a total mess of the pressure wave. You can get a little intuition for this by tracing the path of the bit of wave that moves west-southwest. It bounces around several times before returning to the volcano!

More generally, what is happening is that the wave is becoming very complex as it reflects multiple times. In the animation below I’ve shown what would happen to a pressure wave on a square. There’s no way we would have seen a simple pattern of spikes in the data around the world had it been square.

On a square Earth with a reflective edge, a circular blast from a centrally located volcano would lead to a very complicated pattern of pressure spikes that do not correspond to what is observed.

Is there any way out of this argument? So far I’ve assumed that the wave travels at a constant speed as it moves away from the volcano. What if it didn’t? What if, instead of forming a circle, it formed a square, which could move out uniformly and bounce back uniformly from the edges, so that all round trips were of the same duration? This would require that the wave’s speed heading toward the corners of the square is 40% faster than it’s speed heading north, south, east and west. That’s a clever idea, and so far, what I’ve told you doesn’t exclude it. But in a later post we’ll use pressure spike data to measure the wave’s speed in various directions, and we won’t see such large variation; so we will rule this out soon enough.

The spike patterns would be at least as complicated, and generally worse, if

  1. the volcano were not dead center on the reflecting square (making the pattern of reflections even more complex — see the figure below);
  2. the pressure wave went round the back of the square Earth;
  3. the square was instead a rectangle with sides of different length; or
  4. the square was instead a triangle, hexagon, parallelogram, a five-pointed star, a crescent, or some irregular shape;

In short, a flat Earth is completely excluded — ruled out by the data — except for one very special shape.

On a square Earth with a reflective edge, a circular blast from a non-centrally located volcano would lead to an even more complicated pattern of pressure spikes.

The Flat Disk Earth

Imagine the Earth’s a flat disk, and put the volcano at the exact center. Then, you can get exactly the same pressure spike data as we actually observe. Let’s see why.

If a pressure wave moves off at a constant speed from an explosion at the center of a disk, it will form a ring that moves outward, reflects off the walls, and comes right back to the volcano. And it will do this over and over again. In all directions from the volcano, the out-and-back trips all take the same amount of time; and at each location on Earth, the pressure wave will pass twice during this out-and-back trip. You can go further and check that the equations I used to determine the round-trip time on a spherical Earth will work for a disk Earth too, where T is now the out-and-back time. The spike pattern from a volcano centered on a disk looks identical to that of a volcano on a sphere.

On a disk-shaped Earth with a reflective edge, a blast from a central volcano would reproduce the pressure spikes observed following this month’s explosion.

This is only if the volcano is dead center, however. For example, in the figure below, the trip to the right is longer than the trip to the left; and yet again, because the volcano’s not in the center, the reflections off the edges will quickly make the wave extremely complex and lead to a highly irregular pattern of spikes around the world. So an off-center volcano is ruled out. (The situation is no better if the waves, rather than reflecting off the edges, somehow go round the back.)

A disk Earth with a volcanic blast away from the center will not have equal round-trip times; the full pattern is very complex, but just the two paths shown are enough to give different round-trip times, not seen in the actual pressure spike data.

So the only way to interpret our data, if the Earth is flat, is to conclude that Tonga sits in the very middle of a flat disk. But this is quite a loophole! How can we prove the Earth is not flat?

The Flat-Earthers’ Flat Earth

By the way, what I’ve just told you means that the pressure spike data rules out the flat-disk Earth most popular with flat Earthers. That silly model of Earth puts the north pole at the center and stretches the south pole out into a circle tens of thousands of miles around, with the idea that no one ever actually flies over the south pole to check it out.

The flat earth with north pole at center, popular with a certain set, with a red dot showing the far-off-center location of the Tonga volcano. Pressure waves from that location could not have created the observed pressure spikes.

Well, let’s leave aside the fact that many scientists, including personal friends of mine, have experiments (Ice Cube, BICEP, South Pole Telescope, and many more…) running within a mile or so of the south pole, and they (and the pilots who fly them there) can confirm it is a point, not an arc tens of thousands of miles wide. But we now have an argument that’s not hearsay: given where the Tonga volcano is located on this flat-disk Earth, an explosion there would never have been able to generate the observed regular and simple pattern of pressure spikes. A 12-year-old can prove the flat-earthers’ model of Earth is definitively ruled out.

And these considerations also show us why a flat Earth that puts Tonga dead center is ruled out too, though not from the pressure spike data. Just as the flat-earther’s model of Earth, with the north pole at the center, spreads the south pole into an arc tens of thousands of miles long, one with Tonga at the center would spread southern Algeria, the region exactly opposite, into an arc tens of thousands of miles long. But even though that’s in the desert, people live there. There are a few roads and a few towns. Residents there would certainly know if driving to the nearest town took many weeks instead of a few hours.

A flat Earth centered on region of Tonga would spread southern Algeria across tens of thousands of miles; residents of that country would beg to differ.

So that one remaining flat Earth is dead too. Good-bye, and good riddance.

But I went through this argument carefully for a reason. Once we understand why a Tonga-centered flat disk Earth is consistent with the pressure spike data, we can understand all the other loopholes, such as ellipsoidal Earths — and we’ll also see how to rule them out too.

A Symmetry

Why was it that every flat Earth gave the wrong pattern for the spike timing except for the flat disk with the volcano at dead center? What was special about that case?

The study in my last post showed that any bit of the pressure wave, as it started at and headed out from the volcano, took the same amount of time to travel outward and back to its starting point. In other words, as far as the pressure wave was concerned, all directions leading away from Tonga are equivalent to one another. East, north, northwest, south-southwest — it doesn’t matter, the length of the round-trip path was always the same.

A fancier way to say that is that there is a symmetry, a rotational symmetry in particular. If you were to put a spike straight through the Earth starting right at the volcano and going through the Earth’s center, and then you rotated the Earth around the spike, the Earth’s shape would stay the same as you did so. If that weren’t true, then not all directions would look the same, and not all round-trip times would be equal.

So what my analysis of the data actually shows is not that the Earth’s a sphere, but only that it is symmetrical around the Tonga volcano — all directions are equivalent. That’s true of a sphere. But it’s also true of a flat disk with the volcano at its center — or of a bowl. And it’s also true of an ellipsoid with the volcano at one end, or of a gourd shape, or of half a sphere.

So how are we going to check that the right shape for the Earth is truly a sphere?

A pressure wave starting from any point on a sphere, or from a point at either end of an ellipsoid, or from the center of a disk or hemisphere (with reflecting edges), will give a similar pattern to the one observed after the Tonga volcanic explosion. Note this is not true at any other point on the non-spherical surfaces. (Image made with Mathematica 12.)

Special Points vs. Typical Points

The symmetry that I just described requires that either

  • the Tonga volcano is at a very special point on a non-spherical shape, or
  • the Tonga volcano is at a typical point on a sphere.

We already saw this for the flat disk; we could only reproduce the data if the volcano were at the center, and not if it were off-center (as in the flat-earthers’ flat Earth.) And while it’s true for an ellipsoid with a circular cross-section if the volcano is exactly at one end, it wouldn’t be true if the volcano were anywhere else.

That makes all the non-spherical shapes somewhat implausible, because they require that the Tonga volcano be located at a unique, special place — one of at most two on Earth. And what are the chances that the first big volcanic blast of the internet era would occur at such a special location? There are so many other volcanoes — Vesuvius, Mount Rainier, Mount Erebus, Cotopaxi, Taal, Merapi, and hundreds more — any volcano that isn’t on exactly the opposite side of the Earth from the Tonga volcano would have given asymmetric data, with round trip times that vary widely. Only on a sphere is the Tonga volcano at a typical point, with nothing unusual about it.

So a sphere seems much more plausible. But, hey, that’s just a plausibility argument, and coincidences do happen sometimes. If you want to prove the Earth’s a sphere, this argument is not enough.

Fortunately, it’s now clear where proof would come from. We just need to wait for another similarly-sized eruption, from some other volcano, to create another pressure wave that goes round the Earth. Even if the Tonga volcano were somehow located at a special point on Earth, the next big volcanic blast will almost certainly originate from a typical point. It’s very unlikely that it will lie exactly on the opposite side of the Earth from Tonga. If, after this second blast, we do the same measurement of round-trip times using its pressure spikes, and we again find they all show equal round-trip distances in all directions, then we’ll know the Earth is symmetric around that volcano too. And that’s enough, because only a sphere can be rotationally symmetric around two points (unless those two points are exactly at the opposite ends of an ellipsoid or similar shape.)

The only thing that’s too bad (although it’s also quite fortunate) is that explosions this size don’t happen often. We may not be able to close this loophole for quite a few decades to come…

…unless, rather than looking to the future, we look to the past…?

There is, after all, Krakatoa.

(to be continued)

A Black Day (and a Happy One) In Scientific History


Twenty years ago, astronomers Heino Falcke, Fulvio Melia and Eric Agol (a former colleague of mine at the University of Washington) pointed out that the black hole at the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way, was probably big enough to be observed — not with a usual camera using visible light, but using radio waves and clever techniques known as “interferometry”.  Soon it was pointed out that the black hole in M87, further but larger, could also be observed.  [How? I explained this yesterday in this post.]   

And today, an image of the latter, looking quite similar to what we expected, was presented to humanity.  Just as with the discovery of the Higgs boson, and with LIGO’s first discovery of gravitational waves, nature, captured by the hard work of an international group of many scientists, gives us something definitive, uncontroversial, and spectacularly in line with expectations.


An image of the dead center of the huge galaxy M87, showing a glowing ring of radio waves from a disk of rapidly rotating gas, and the dark quasi-silhouette of a solar-system-sized black hole.  Congratulations to the Event Horizon Telescope team

I’ll have more to say about this later [have to do non-physics work today 😦 ] and in particular about the frustration of not finding any helpful big surprises during this great decade of fundamental science — but for now, let’s just enjoy this incredible image for what it is, and congratulate those who proposed this effort and those who carried it out.


LHCb experiment finds another case of CP violation in nature

The LHCb experiment at the Large Hadron Collider is dedicated mainly to the study of mesons [objects made from a quark of one type, an anti-quark of another type, plus many other particles] that contain bottom quarks (hence the `b’ in the name).  But it also can be used to study many other things, including mesons containing charm quarks.

By examining large numbers of mesons that contain a charm quark and an up anti-quark (or a charm anti-quark and an up quark) and studying carefully how they decay, the LHCb experimenters have discovered a new example of violations of the transformations known as CP (C: exchange of particle with anti-particle; P: reflection of the world in a mirror), of the sort that have been previously seen in mesons containing strange quarks and mesons containing bottom quarks.  Here’s the press release.

Congratulations to LHCb!  This important addition to our basic knowledge is consistent with expectations; CP violation of roughly this size is predicted by the formulas that make up the Standard Model of Particle Physics.  However, our predictions are very rough in this context; it is sometimes difficult to make accurate calculations when the strong nuclear force, which holds mesons (as well as protons and neutrons) together, is involved.  So this is a real coup for LHCb, but not a game-changer for particle physics.  Perhaps, sometime in the future, theorists will learn how to make predictions as precise as LHCb’s measurement!

The Importance and Challenges of “Open Data” at the Large Hadron Collider

A little while back I wrote a short post about some research that some colleagues and I did using “open data” from the Large Hadron Collider [LHC]. We used data made public by the CMS experimental collaboration — about 1% of their current data — to search for a new particle, using a couple of twists (as proposed over 10 years ago) on a standard technique.  (CMS is one of the two general-purpose particle detectors at the LHC; the other is called ATLAS.)  We had two motivations: (1) Even if we didn’t find a new particle, we wanted to prove that our search method was effective; and (2) we wanted to stress-test the CMS Open Data framework, to assure it really does provide all the information needed for a search for something unknown.

Recently I discussed (1), and today I want to address (2): to convey why open data from the LHC is useful but controversial, and why we felt it was important, as theoretical physicists (i.e. people who perform particle physics calculations, but do not build and run the actual experiments), to do something with it that is usually the purview of experimenters.

The Importance of Archiving Data

In many subfields of physics and astronomy, data from experiments is made public as a matter of routine. Usually this occurs after an substantial delay, to allow the experimenters who collected the data to analyze it first for major discoveries. That’s as it should be: the experimenters spent years of their lives proposing, building and testing the experiment, and they deserve an uninterrupted opportunity to investigate its data. To force them to release data immediately would create a terrible disincentive for anyone to do all the hard work!

Data from particle physics colliders, however, has not historically been made public. More worrying, it has rarely been archived in a form that is easy for others to use at a later date. I’m not the right person to tell you the history of this situation, but I can give you a sense for why this still happens today. Continue reading

A Broad Search for Fast Hidden Particles

A few days ago I wrote a quick summary of a project that we just completed (and you may find it helpful to read that post first). In this project, we looked for new particles at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in a novel way, in two senses. Today I’m going to explain what we did, why we did it, and what was unconventional about our search strategy.

The first half of this post will be appropriate for any reader who has been following particle physics as a spectator sport, or in some similar vein. In the second half, I’ll add some comments for my expert colleagues that may be useful in understanding and appreciating some of our results.  [If you just want to read the comments for experts, jump here.]

Why did we do this?

Motivation first. Why, as theorists, would we attempt to take on the role of our experimental colleagues — to try on our own to analyze the extremely complex and challenging data from the LHC? We’re by no means experts in data analysis, and we were very slow at it. And on top of that, we only had access to 1% of the data that CMS has collected. Isn’t it obvious that there is no chance whatsoever of finding something new with just 1% of the data, since the experimenters have had years to look through much larger data sets? Continue reading

Lights in the Sky (maybe…)

The Sun is busy this summer. The upcoming eclipse on August 21 will turn day into deep twilight and transfix millions across the United States.  But before we get there, we may, if we’re lucky, see darkness transformed into color and light.

On Friday July 14th, a giant sunspot in our Sun’s upper regions, easily visible if you project the Sun’s image onto a wall, generated a powerful flare.  A solar flare is a sort of magnetically powered explosion; it produces powerful electromagnetic waves and often, as in this case, blows a large quantity of subatomic particles from the Sun’s corona. The latter is called a “coronal mass ejection.” It appears that the cloud of particles from Friday’s flare is large, and headed more or less straight for the Earth.

Light, visible and otherwise, is an electromagnetic wave, and so the electromagnetic waves generated in the flare — mostly ultraviolet light and X-rays — travel through space at the speed of light, arriving at the Earth in eight and a half minutes. They cause effects in the Earth’s upper atmosphere that can disrupt radio communications, or worse.  That’s another story.

But the cloud of subatomic particles from the coronal mass ejection travels a few hundred times slower than light, and it takes it about two or three days to reach the Earth.  The wait is on.

Bottom line: a huge number of high-energy subatomic particles may arrive in the next 24 to 48 hours. If and when they do, the electrically charged particles among them will be trapped in, and shepherded by, the Earth’s magnetic field, which will drive them spiraling into the atmosphere close to the Earth’s polar regions. And when they hit the atmosphere, they’ll strike atoms of nitrogen and oxygen, which in turn will glow. Aurora Borealis, Northern Lights.

So if you live in the upper northern hemisphere, including Europe, Canada and much of the United States, keep your eyes turned to the north (and to the south if you’re in Australia or southern South America) over the next couple of nights. Dark skies may be crucial; the glow may be very faint.

You can also keep abreast of the situation, as I will, using NOAA data, available for instance at

The plot on the upper left of that website, an example of which is reproduced below, shows three types of data. The top graph shows the amount of X-rays impacting the atmosphere; the big jump on the 14th is Friday’s flare. And if and when the Earth’s magnetic field goes nuts and auroras begin, the bottom plot will show the so-called “Kp Index” climbing to 5, 6, or hopefully 7 or 8. When the index gets that high, there’s a much greater chance of seeing auroras much further away from the poles than usual.

The latest space weather overview plot

Keep an eye also on the data from the ACE satellite, lower down on the website; it’s placed to give Earth an early warning, so when its data gets busy, you’ll know the cloud of particles is not far away.

Wishing you all a great sky show!

What’s all this fuss about having alternatives?

I don’t know what all the fuss is about “alternative facts.” Why, we scientists use them all the time!

For example, because of my political views, I teach physics students that gravity pulls down. That’s why the students I teach, when they go on to be engineers, put wheels on the bottom corners of cars, so that the cars don’t scrape on the ground. But in some countries, the physicists teach them that gravity pulls whichever way the country’s leaders instruct it to. That’s why their engineers build flying carpets as transports for their country’s troops. It’s a much more effective way to bring an army into battle, if your politics allows it.  We ought to consider it here.

Another example: in my physics class I claim that energy is “conserved” (in the physics sense) — it is never created out of nothing, nor is it ever destroyed. In our daily lives, energy is taken in with food, converted into special biochemicals for storage, and then used to keep us warm, maintain the pumping of our hearts, allow us to think, walk, breathe — everything we do. Those are my facts. But in some countries, the facts and laws are different, and energy can be created from nothing. The citizens of those countries never need to eat; it is a wonderful thing to be freed from this requirement. It’s great for their military, too, to not have to supply food for troops, or fuel for tanks and airplanes and ships. Our only protection against invasion from these countries is that if they crossed our borders they’d suddenly need fuel tanks.

Facts are what you make them; it’s entirely up to you. You need a good, well-thought-out system of facts, of course; otherwise they won’t produce the answers that you want. But just first figure out what you want to be true, and then go out and find the facts that make it true. That’s the way science has always been done, and the best scientists all insist upon this strategy.  As a simple illustration, compare the photos below.  Which picture has more people in it?   Obviously, the answer depends on what facts you’ve chosen to use.   [Picture copyright Reuters]  If you can’t understand that, you’re not ready to be a serious scientist!

A third example: when I teach physics to students, I instill in them the notion that quantum mechanics controls the atomic world, and underlies the transistors in every computer and every cell phone. But the uncertainty principle that arises in quantum mechanics just isn’t acceptable in some countries, so they don’t factualize it. They don’t use seditious and immoral computer chips there; instead they use proper vacuum tubes. One curious result is that their computers are the size of buildings. The CDC advises you not to travel to these countries, and certainly not to take electronics with you. Not only might your cell phone explode when it gets there, you yourself might too, since your own molecules are held together with quantum mechanical glue. At least you should bring a good-sized bottle of our local facts with you on your travels, and take a good handful before bedtime.

Hearing all the naive cries that facts aren’t for the choosing, I became curious about what our schools are teaching young people. So I asked a friend’s son, a bright young kid in fourth grade, what he’d been learning about alternatives and science. Do you know what he answered?!  I was shocked. “Alternative facts?”, he said. “You mean lies?” Sheesh. Kids these days… What are we teaching them? It’s a good thing we’ll soon have a new secretary of education.