Category Archives: Science News

Physics is Broken!!!

Last Thursday, an experiment reported that the magnetic properties of the muon, the electron’s middleweight cousin, are a tiny bit different from what particle physics equations say they should be. All around the world, the headlines screamed: PHYSICS IS BROKEN!!! And indeed, it’s been pretty shocking to physicists everywhere. For instance, my equations are working erratically; many of the calculations I tried this weekend came out upside-down or backwards. Even worse, my stove froze my coffee instead of heating it, I just barely prevented my car from floating out of my garage into the trees, and my desk clock broke and spilled time all over the floor. What a mess!

Broken, eh? When we say a coffee machine or a computer is broken, it means it doesn’t work. It’s unavailable until it’s fixed. When a glass is broken, it’s shattered into pieces. We need a new one. I know it’s cute to say that so-and-so’s video “broke the internet.” But aren’t we going a little too far now? Nothing’s broken about physics; it works just as well today as it did a month ago.

More reasonable headlines have suggested that “the laws of physics have been broken”. That’s better; I know what it means to break a law. (Though the metaphor is imperfect, since if I were to break a state law, I’d be punished, whereas if an object were to break a fundamental law of physics, that law would have to be revised!) But as is true in the legal system, not all physics laws, and not all violations of law, are equally significant.

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A Catastrophic Weekend for Theoretical High Energy Physics

It is beyond belief that not only am I again writing a post about the premature death of a colleague whom I have known for decades, but that I am doing it about two of them.

Over the past weekend, two of the world’s most influential and brilliant theoretical high-energy physicists — Steve Gubser of Princeton University and Ann Nelson of the University of Washington — fell to their deaths in separate mountain accidents, one in the Alps and one in the Cascades.

Theoretical high energy physics is a small community, and within the United States itself the community is tiny.  Ann and Steve were both justifiably famous and highly respected as exceptionally bright lights in their areas of research. Even for those who had not met them personally, this is a stunning and irreplaceable loss of talent and of knowledge.

But most of us did know them personally.  For me, and for others with a personal connection to them, the news is devastating and tragic. I encountered Steve when he was a student and I was a postdoc in the Princeton area, and later helped bring him into a social group where he met his future wife (a great scientist in her own right, and a friend of mine going back decades).  As for Ann, she was one of my teachers at Stanford in graduate school, then my senior colleague on four long scientific papers, and then my colleague (along with her husband David B. Kaplan) for five years at the University of Washington, where she had the office next to mine. I cannot express what a privilege it always was to work with her, learn from her, and laugh with her.

I don’t have the heart or energy right now to write more about this, but I will try to do so at a later time. Right now I join their spouses and families, and my colleagues, in mourning.

Some Pre-Holiday International Congratulations

I’m still kind of exhausted from the effort (see yesterday’s post) of completing our survey of some of the many unexpected ways that the newly discovered Higgs particle might decay. But I would be remiss if, before heading off into the holiday break, I didn’t issue some well-deserved congratulations.

The Jade Rabbit rover on the surface of the Moon, 15 December. Credit:Xinhua

Congratulations, first, to China — to the scientists and engineers who’ve managed to put a lander and a rover on the Moon. If you think that’s easy… think again! And they succeeded on their first attempt, a real coup. Now let’s see what science they can do with it, exploring a region of the Moon that apparently may offer answers to important questions about the Moon’s history. Specifically, by accident or by design, the rover is going to be able to explore an area of considerable geological importance, involving one of the Moon’s giant lava flows, a relatively young one (1-2.5 billion years rather than 3 billion or more).

Soyuz VS06, with Gaia, lifted off from Europe’s Spaceport, French Guiana, on 19 December 2013. Copyright: ESA – S. Corvaja, 2013

Congratulations, next, to the scientists and engineers of the European Union, who’ve put a fantastic telescope into space, destined to orbit the sun. The Gaia mission is aimed at doing the extraordinary: mapping, with ultra-high precision, the locations and motions of no less than 1 billion stars within our galaxy — nearly 1% of the total number. The distance to each of these stars will be determined by parallax — looking at how the positions of stars wobble, from the perspective of the spacecraft as it orbits the sun — and the real motions of the stars will be determined by how they drift across the sky, and by the Doppler effect for light.  This wealth of information will help scientists figure out the shape and history of the galaxy to a degree never previously possible.  Meanwhile, Gaia will also be able to do a lot of other science, picking up distant supernovas outside our galaxy, nearby asteroids orbiting our sun, and signs of planets around other stars, as well as brown dwarfs (small failed stars) that may be floating around between the stars. Gaia can even check some aspects of Einstein’s theory of gravity! Read here about all the wonderful things this mission can do.

Congratulations also to the scientists and engineers in Iran, who’ve apparently moved their rocketry program, and its potential application to human space flight, among other things, another step forward. A second monkey has made the trip to the edge of space, a suborbital trip. (Did the first survive? it’s not clear, and admittedly Iran is known for photo-shopping reality into supporting the story it wants to tell. Not that it matters; it took the US several tries, back over 60 years ago, before a monkey survived the trip, and the survival rate continued to be poor for a while. )  Anyway, it puts Iran well on its way toward its goal of a human in space by 2018.

And finally, congratulations to my own country, the United States, for having passed a budget deal. Not out of the woods yet, but at least it was bipartisan, and we’re not yet talking about another damaging government shutdown, or worse, default. Politics isn’t rocket science. We’ll have to hope our politicians can learn something from China: that it’s good to find some common and worthy goals to work toward together, rather than to fight about absolutely everything and bring the nation’s operations to a halt.

Wednesday: Sean Carroll & I Interviewed Again by Alan Boyle

Today, Wednesday December 4th, at 8 pm Eastern/5 pm Pacific time, Sean Carroll and I will be interviewed again by Alan Boyle on “Virtually Speaking Science”.   The link where you can listen in (in real time or at your leisure) is

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/virtually-speaking-science/2013/12/05/alan-boyle-matt-strassler-sean-carroll

What is “Virtually Speaking Science“?  It is an online radio program that presents, according to its website:

  • Informal conversations hosted by science writers Alan Boyle, Tom Levenson and Jennifer Ouellette, who explore the explore the often-volatile landscape of science, politics and policy, the history and economics of science, science deniers and its relationship to democracy, and the role of women in the sciences.

Sean Carroll is a Caltech physicist, astrophysicist, writer and speaker, blogger at Preposterous Universe, who recently completed an excellent and now prize-winning popular book (which I highly recommend) on the Higgs particle, entitled “The Particle at the End of the Universe“.  Our interviewer Alan Boyle is a noted science writer, author of the book “The Case for Pluto“, winner of many awards, and currently NBC News Digital’s science editor [at the blog  “Cosmic Log“].

Sean and I were interviewed in February by Alan on this program; here’s the link.  I was interviewed on Virtually Speaking Science once before, by Tom Levenson, about the Large Hadron Collider (here’s the link).  Also, my public talk “The Quest for the Higgs Particle” is posted in their website (here’s the link to the audio and to the slides).

Change of Climate on the Right

There is no room for politics when we are playing for keeps. So say four Republicans, who served four Republican presidents as heads of the Evironmental Protection Agency.  The climate is changing in Washington D.C., though still more slowly than in the Arctic.

My own view? Our uncontrolled experiments on our one and only planet must be curbed.  Scientific evidence from many quarters show definitively that the Earth is warming.  Science can give us arguments, strong but not airtight, that we may be responsible (mainly via carbon emissions, and the greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide).  It cannot tell us reliably how bad the risks of a warmer Earth will be; there are too many uncertainties.  But it seems to me that these are risks we shouldn’t be taking, period.  We don’t get to mail-order another planet if we mess this one up.

Wednesday: Sean Carroll & I Interviewed by Alan Boyle

On Wednesday February 6th, at 9 pm Eastern/6 pm Pacific time, Sean Carroll and I will be interviewed by Alan Boyle on “Virtually Speaking Science”.   The link where you can listen in (in real time or at your leisure) is http://www.blogtalkradio.com/virtually-speaking-science/2013/02/07/sean-carroll-matt-strassler-alan-boyle

What is “Virtually Speaking Science“?  It is an online radio program that presents, according to its website:

  • Informal conversations hosted by science writers Alan Boyle, Tom Levenson and Jennifer Ouellette, who explore the explore the often-volatile landscape of science, politics and policy, the history and economics of science, science deniers and its relationship to democracy, and the role of women in the sciences.

Sean Carroll is a Caltech physicist, astrophysicist, writer and speaker, one of the founders of the blog Cosmic Variance, who recently completed an excellent popular book (which I highly recommend) on the Higgs particle, entitled “The Particle at the End of the Universe“.  Our interviewer Alan Boyle is a noted science writer, author of the book “The Case for Pluto“, winner of many awards, and currently NBC News Digital’s science editor [at the blog  “Cosmic Log“].

I was interviewed on Virtually Speaking Science once before, by Tom Levenson, about the Large Hadron Collider (here’s the link).  Also, my public talk “The Quest for the Higgs Particle” is posted in their website (here’s the link to the audio and to the slides).

 

The Puzzle of the Proton and the Muon

Fig. 1: A hydrogen atom consists of a tiny proton surrounded by an electron cloud, which is where the even tinier electron is to be found when sought.

Fig. 1: A hydrogen atom consists of a tiny proton “orbited” by an electron.

There’s been a lot of reporting recently on a puzzle in particle physics that I haven’t previously written about. There have been two attempts, a preliminary one in 2010 and a more detailed one reported just this month, to measure the size of a proton by studying the properties of an exotic atom, called “muonic hydrogen”. Similar to hydrogen, which consists of a proton orbited by an electron (Figure 1), this atom consists of a proton and a short-lived heavy cousin of the electron, called the muon (Figure 2). A muon, as far as we have ever been able to tell, is just like an electron in all respects except that it is heavier; more precisely, the electromagnetic force and the strong and weak nuclear force treat electrons and muons in exactly the same way. Only the first two of these forces should play a role in atoms (and neither gravity nor any force due to the Higgs field should matter either). So because we have confirmed our understanding of ordinary hydrogen with very high precision, we believe we also understand muonic hydrogen very well also.  But something’s amiss. Continue reading

Dark Matter Around the Corner?

The meaning of the title of Clara Moskowitz’s new article for the public, “Dark Matter Mystery May Soon Be Solved“, all lies in the word “may”.  It may.  It may not.

According to the article, “the answer to this cosmic mystery could come within the next three or four years, scientists say.”

I have to admit that this kind of phraseology, which one often sees in the press in reports about science, drives me a bit nuts.  Which scientists? How many of them?  You can’t tell from this line whether this is something that a group of three or four mavericks are claiming, or whether it is conventional wisdom shared by most of the community.   And “the answer… could come…”? Interpreted literally it is content-free: yes, the answer could come in the next few years, or not — but you don’t need any scientists to tell you that.  If one interprets it more optimistically — that it is intended to imply that the answer will very likely come within the next three or four years — then I think it is far from clear what fraction of the experts will agree with that statement.

Rather than debate the claim, let’s start with the physics.  What will determine how long it takes to discover what dark matter is made from? Continue reading