Higgs boson discovery

The more observant of you may have noticed that yesterday’s promised post on quantum mechanics failed to materialise. But I think I’ve got a good enough reason for it. Because yesterday, CERN announced that they believe they have found the Higgs boson particle (known as the “God particle”, which I think overstates its importance somewhat).

Basically, the Higgs boson is an explanation of why particles have mass. The Higgs field is a quantum field (a field is a physical quantity associated with spacetime) through which particles travel to gain mass. It, however, would need a boson. Hence the search for the Higgs boson particle.

Although not yet officially confirmed as the Higgs boson, because the possibility remains that the particle detected is actually a previously unknown particle that was never theorised, the data suggests that it is. To give you an idea of the significance of this discovery, Professor Stephen Hawking has stated that it should “earn Peter Higgs the Nobel Prize.” This discovery could help physicists understand more about the matter which compose the Universe we don’t understand (that’s about 96% of all matter in the Universe – the matter we can see makes up 4% of the Universe).

But the question now is what next for physics? Will the Higgs boson discovery herald a new era of research and discovery? Or is it the last piece of jigsaw, rendering physics pointless in the future?

Ubuntu

I’ve done it. I’ve finally done it. All this waiting and I’ve finally done it.

I’ve installed a Linux-based OS on my computer! I now have Ubuntu and it is good. Indeed, I quite honestly believe it to be better than Windows, and definitely better than Apple (to be fair, most things are better than Apple – it is the computing equivalent of the Star Wars prequels). So, that’s the main exciting news.

Watch out for another quantum mechanics post on Wednesday and I’ll probably get a review of Ubuntu done for Sunday. Qapla’!

Quantum Mechanics: Wave-Particle Duality

Well, as promised, here’s the first post in the quantum mechanics series.

In the 17th century, physicists Christiaan Huygens and Issac Newton proposed two different natures of light. Huygens stated that light travels as a wave, while Newton stated that light travels as a particle. Clearly, light cannot be both a wave or a particle. You’d think so, anyway.

Because Newton could use his theory to explain reflection, it was accepted for over a century. Then came the famous double-slit experiments. In this, when light is sent through a gird,¬† an interference pattern characteristic of waves is observed. Not only did this suggest that light was in fact a wave, but light being a wave explained more than the theory that light is a particle. When James Clerk Maxwell used Maxwell’s equations to explain light as electromagnetic waves in the late 19th century, and particularly when Heinrich Hertz (for whom the unit of frequency is named) confirmed this in experiments in 1887, scientific thinking turned towards the theory that light was a wave. There was, however, a problem with this interpretation of light as a wave. The photoelectric effect.

The photoelectric effect is where light being shined on a metal caused an electric current in that metal, caused by the light knocking electrons from the metal. But the strongest lights didn’t cause this effect, despite the fact that dimmer lights did. Maxwell’s wave theory of light stated that the effect should increase with the intensity of the light, so clearly something wasn’t right with this theory as it couldn’t be fully backed up by observation. Hungarian physicist Philipp Lenard performed an experiment which showed that the maximum kinetic energy of the electrons in the metal was determined by the frequency of the light, not its intensity. In 1905, Albert Einstein described light as being composed of small quanta (think of a quantum as being a unit), which we now call photons. Photons are the bosons which mediate the electromagnetic force. The electrons could only receive energy transferred from the electromagnetic in these discrete portions known as quanta, as related in the equation E = hf (h standing for Planck’s constant, which is 6.626 x 10^-34 J second and is to do with the sizes of energy quanta in quantum mechanics).

Only photons of a high enough frequency would be able to produce electrons from the metal, and intensity was not responsible. This is the law of the photoelectric effect, and it won Einstein the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921.

And that is wave-particle duality: sub-atomic particles exhibit behaviour of both waves and particles, as proven by research into the photoelectric effect by many physicists. It is a cornerstone of quantum mechanics and isn’t too hard to have some grasp of (a basic grasp, mind).

So that is the first post of the series. Any feedback is appreciated!

Quantum Mechanics: Introduction

If you’ve ever heard of Schrodinger’s Cat, then you have heard of quantum mechanics. Which is the topic I’ve decided to introduce. Not in depth – that would require extremely complex mathematics which many theoretical physicists have difficulty understanding.

I’ve decided to do a mini-series on the subject. This will be explaining what the field actually is in basic terms, and other aspects will be explored (in layman’s terms still). So what is quantum mechanics?

Quantum mechanics is defined as the branch of physics studying phenomena occurring¬† on the order of the Planck constant. In other words, it is the study of physics which deals with particles and sub-atomic objects. It includes the uncertainty principle and wave-particle duality, both of which I’ll go into in later posts.

The problem with quantum mechanics is that it postulates things which seem absurd on larger scales, yet which are true. More interestingly, despite being true, it disagrees with relativity, which is the cornerstone for the entire field of physics. This gap is responsible for the search for the Grand Unified Theory, which includes theories such as string theory and loop quantum gravity.

It is an interesting yet incomprehensible area of physics which totally goes against human intuition. Where needed, I may post equations/formulae, but those will be kept to a minimum for ease of reading and also because much of the mathematics (by which I mean the vast majority) is too difficult for me to understand and I won’t pretend that I know when I don’t.

So anyway, thanks to me being engrossed in Stephen Hawking books, posts about quantum mechanics will be appearing this week. Hope you enjoy them!

(For you non-science geeks out there, do not worry – some technology posts are in the works and will posted soon)

 

Finally

Exam Week is over.¬† Ten exams in five days, but finally I’m done. Which means a return to the usual blogging schedule. Huzzah!

 

 

 

Ah, the joys of revision…

You may remember I said that if there was more than a three day gap between posts, then it would be down to exceptional circumstances. OK, these circumstances aren’t exceptional, but they are time-consuming. Essentially, I’ve been revising. Yep, for about the second time in my life I’m revising for exams. In a strange way, it’s enjoyable knowing that I’m maximising my chances of success. I just wish that there was an easier way to do that.

Now, in order to do what I want to do at A-Level, I’d better work on maths and physics (particularly maths). I’ve also got exams in German, History, Geography, Philosophy and Ethics and Chemistry coming up. Some are mock papers, but I’m still revising for them. So if my posts are sporadic over the next week or two, that’ll be why. I’m forming my future. Otherwise I’ll end up doing liberal arts, and I will cry with shame if that happens (no offence to arty or liberal arty people).

Now THIS Is Nerdy…

Well. I have realised something. I might’ve just hit new highs of nerdiness. This, people, is it. I am enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

I am currently watching the transit of Venus on NASA’s website, and I’m enjoying it. Basically, this won’t happen again until 2117, and it is very scientifically significant. Scientists will measure the dip in the Sun’s brightness caused by Venus, which will help in the hunt for exoplanets. Information from the transit will be used to try and estimate the diameter of Venus. This estimate will be compared with the known diameter of Venus, and the information from that will help guide scientists on how exoplanet diameters can be calculated. Earth-based telescopes and the ESA spacecraft Venus Express will observe the atmosphere of Venus, which will give a better idea of the climate of Venus than we can get from any other method. The analysis of the atmosphere of Venus will be compared with what we already know, which can be used as pointers when studying exoplanets. Finally, the Hubble Space Telescope will use the Moon as a mirror to study light from Venus. A spectrograph of the light will help determine what is in Venus’s atmosphere, which is another way to test methods of studying exoplanets.

So that is the very nerdy thing I am doing at 11:42 pm. Hurrah!

Vive la Republique

Well. 60 years. 60 years of Queen Elizabeth II on the throne. And, unfortunately, days of irritating sycophancy and inane coverage of some boats sailing down a river. This led me to agree with something Stephen Fry said. This makes me angry.

I know it’s generally considered anathema for a Brit to criticise the institution of monarchy. It is, after all, meant to be the bedrock of our nation. As Prince Charles (quite wrongly) said on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, the Queen makes us “proud to be British”. Don’t know about fellow Brits out there, but I personally believe that the great spirit of British exploration and the bravery of our armed forces in dangerous situations across the world, fighting for our freedom so that we don’t have to, is a far better reason to be proud of our nation than the celebration of a woman who’s finest achievement in life was to spring forth from the loins of royalty.

It is just so medieval and servile. We are effectively deifying an old woman, who was at one of the worst concerts it has ever been my displeasure to watch whilst her 90-year-old husband was in hospital with a bladder infection. The poor woman couldn’t even see him because she had to be at a concert held on her own front drive. And she looked miserable for most of it. I can’t blame her, really. I looked pretty miserable myself. But hey, I needed to watch something to get a blog post out of it.

Let’s not forget that the system of monarchy is harmful to the royals themselves. They do not have a normal childhood. They cannot seek the careers they want, because they have to perform royal duties. And if you are a future monarch, you are expected to have children. To hell with your personal preferences. You’ve got millions of people throughout the Commonwealth to please, OK?

We live in the 21st century, yet most of us effectively worship an anachronism. I know Britain is considered traditional, and I know many people (I have Americans in my mind for this) see it as quaint and nice. Maybe it’s because they’re used to a republic. But that is still no argument for supplanting democracy with pompous foolery. It is absurd, and does nothing for our country. When Charles takes the throne, who knows what will happen to the monarchy. I wouldn’t think it’ll go well for it.

And then there are those who go on about how nice the Queen is. Have they met her? A majority obviously have not. For all they know, she might be a horrible and nasty person. The palace PR machine will make her look good. To be fair, she might be nice. Not knowing her at all – unlike many of my countrymen, I am fully aware she is a stranger who will never be aware of my existence – I do not feel I can pass a fair judgement.

A judgement I can pass, however, is that the monarchy is an outdated system that will one day be forced out by progress. I do not believe, and I do not hope, that the monarchy withstands the test of time. The monarch must be an otherworldly figure for the monarchy to work, and it is a cruel paradox that as the royals become more like us, we will be appalled and demand they go. People do not want their heads of state to understand them, and that is extremely worrying to anyone who cares about Great Britain.

So, as they say in France, Vive la Republique. Why not elect a President of Britain? It doesn’t have to be a politician. Elect someone from outside the world of politics, and make the presidency a ceremonial position. That way we keep the Westminster system and can remain an example of democracy to the world.

(If you want to know more about republicanism in Britain, visit the Republic website)

End Of The World

As you will no doubt be aware, the year is 2012. This can mean only one thing. The end is neigh. Or is it?

Now, I believe in the scientific method. Clearly the world ending is a purely scientific matter. So, what are the doomsday theories for this year and are they actually credible?

The main theory is that Nibiru is travelling through the solar system, on a direct collision path with our planet. In 1995, Nancy Lieder (an appropriate name) claimed to have been contacted by aliens from the Zeta Reticuli star system warning of a planetary-sized body colliding into Earth. She originally claimed that this catastrophe would happen in May 2003. The event failed to happen, and so we are now asked to believe that it will happen on December 21 2012. This date is the end of the current baktun in the Mayan calendar.

Allegedly, the Mayans (well known for their mathematical and astronomical abilities) believe that this marks the end of the world. Actually, they believe that a new baktun will start and nothing much will happen. But don’t let that get in the way of a good story.

NASA officially deny the existence of Nibiru, claiming that there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that we are threatened by any other planetary body. You may think that NASA is lying. But NASA has no way of concealing evidence like that from the wider scientific community, and all credible scientists agree that claims made about Nibiru cannot be true because it is physically impossible for them to be true.

Let’s move on to polar shift theory. According to this, a sudden polar shift will lead to a cataclysm on Earth. Now, polar shifts are a regular and natural occurrence, happening once every 800,000 years on average. One way it is claimed this would be disastrous is that a pole-shift would temporarily leave the Earth with no magnetic field, allowing harmful radiation from the Sun through. In reality, the worst thing that could happen is a weakening of the magnetic field. This would allow more radiation through, but the effect is limited to seeing the aurora at lower latitudes. Nothing suggests that life will be adversely affected, especially considering that the thick atmosphere surrounding Earth also offers a degree of protection from harmful solar radiation.

Finally, solar storms. Some believe that a giant solar flare would contain enough energy to destroy Earth. A very worrying prospect, until you consider the fact that it cannot happen. According to NASA, anyone aged over 11 has already lived through a solar maximum, and the next one won’t even happen until 2013 at the earliest.

Solar flares can cause serious disruption to technological systems. For example, GPS satellites might be affected, which would cause quite a lot of problems. Coronal mass ejections (CMEs) could cause electrical fluctuations that would stop transformers in power grids working or cause severe damage to satellites. That sort of thing can affect navigational systems on aircraft, which is a cause for concern. But it will not lead to the end of the world.

The Truth Is Out There

Throughout human history, we have had many questions about our existence and our place in the Universe. Why are we here? Who are we? And, perhaps the one which has captured the most imaginations, are we alone in the Universe?

Well, there are theories about potential life on Europa (a moon of Jupiter), because it has oceans locked under an icy surface which may be able to contain life. However, amongst the scientific community there is a belief that, just as the laws of physics are the same throughout the Universe, the laws of life may be the same also. Life managed to develop on Earth, so reason dictates that Earth-like planets may well be able to support life, which may involve intelligent civilisations.

Earth is the only Earth-like planet in the Solar System, but there are believed to be several Earth-like exoplanets which orbit other stars. But we cannot always see these planets. So how do we detect them?

European researchers have just successfully tested “laser frequency combs” for this very purpose. All planets exert some gravitational influence on their Sun (think about the way the Moon has gravitational influence on Earth despite being smaller), however minimal. The way this is detected revolves around wavelength.

Astronomical spectrographs separate light according to wavelength. What they detect is vital to many areas of astronomy, and so astronomers are constantly looking for ways to improve the process in order to get better results. The important thing is to calibrate the measuring equipment well, and current spectrographs aren’t calibrated well enough to detect changes in wavelength emitted by stars that is caused by the gravitational influence of smaller exoplanets.

When shifts in wavelength are detected, they should correspond with changes to the radial velocity of the star the exoplanet is orbiting. These are found as shifts in the spectral lines of the parent star, which is caused by (Big Bang Theory fans might like this part) the Doppler effect. This is perfect for finding massive planets, but not ones in the Goldilocks zone (named because it is just right for life to develop) around a star.

Frequency combs send out spectral lines which can be used as some sort of “frequency ruler” which can be measured against light from distant stars. Changes in light wavelength can give us more ideas about the sort of planets orbiting a star, and whether they are like Earth.

Anyway, what do you think? Is this a waste of time? Are there other intelligent beings out there? Am I being too nerdy for my own good?

Oh, before I forget, hope you enjoyed my first heavily science based post!