Super-Cool Planck Mission Begins to Warm

3:50:16 PM, Friday, January 13, 2012

“ (BBC) One of Europe's great astronomical ventures is coming to a close.

The Planck telescope, put in space to map the oldest light in the Universe, has run out of the helium coolant that keeps it in full working order.

Engineers expect the observatory's systems to start to warm from their ultra-frigid state in the coming days, blinding one of its two instruments.

Nonetheless, Planck has gathered more than enough data since its launch in 2009 to complete its mission goals.

"We have had a flood of data - much more data than originally anticipated, and now we are in the frantic phase," revealed Jan Tauber, the European Space Agency's (Esa) Planck project scientist.

"In a year's time we have promised to deliver our maps and scientific papers, so we are feeling some pressure," he told BBC News.

Planck's quest has been to survey the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) - the "first light" to sweep out across space once a post-Big-Bang Universe had cooled sufficiently to permit the formation of hydrogen atoms.

Before that time, scientists say, the cosmos would have been so hot that matter and radiation would have been "coupled" - the Universe would have been opaque.

The CMB pervades the entire sky, and scientists can measure tiny temperature variations in it to glean information about the age, contents and shape of the cosmos.

Two American satellites have already done this, but Planck is much more sensitive and can make much more detailed maps, with higher resolution.

To do this, some of its light detectors have had to operate at the astonishingly low temperature of minus 273.05C - just a tenth of a degree above "absolute zero", the lowest temperature theoretically possible in the Universe…”



Pentagon-Backed 'Time Cloak' Stops the Clock

3:13:41 AM, Friday, January 13, 2012

“Pentagon-supported physicists on Wednesday said they had devised a "time cloak" that briefly makes an event undetectable.

It's one thing to make an object invisible, like Harry Potter's mythical cloak. But scientists have made an entire event impossible to see. They have invented a time masker.

Think of it as an art heist that takes place before your eyes and surveillance cameras. You don't see the thief strolling into the museum, taking the painting down or walking away, but he did. It's not just that the thief is invisible - his whole activity is.

What scientists at Cornell University did was on a much smaller scale, both in terms of events and time. It happened so quickly that it's not even a blink of an eye. Their time cloak lasts an incredibly tiny fraction of a fraction of a second. They hid an event for 40 picoseconds (trillionths of a second), according to a study appearing in Thursday's edition of the journal Nature.

We see events happening as light from them reaches our eyes. Usually it's a continuous flow of light. In the new research, however, scientists were able to interrupt that flow for just an instant.

Other newly created invisibility cloaks fashioned by scientists move the light beams away in the traditional three dimensions. The Cornell team alters not where the light flows but how fast it moves, changing in the dimension of time, not space.

They tinkered with the speed of beams of light in a way that would make it appear to surveillance cameras or laser security beams that an event, such as an art heist, isn't happening.

Another way to think of it is as if scientists edited or erased a split second of history. It's as if you are watching a movie with a scene inserted that you don't see or notice. It's there in the movie, but it's not something you saw, said study co-author Moti Fridman, a physics researcher at Cornell.

The scientists created a lens of not just light, but time. Their method splits light, speeding up one part of light and slowing down another. It creates a gap and that gap is where an event is masked.

"You kind of create a hole in time where an event takes place," said study co-author Alexander Gaeta, director of Cornell's School of Applied and Engineering Physics. "You just don't know that anything ever happened."

This is all happening in beams of light that move too fast for the human eye to see. Using fiber optics, the hole in time is created as light moves along inside a fiber much thinner than a human hair. The scientists shoot the beam of light out, and then with other beams, they create a time lens that splits the light into two different speed beams that create the effect of invisibility by being too fast or too slow. The whole work is a mess of fibers on a long table and almost looks like a pile of spaghetti, Fridman said…”



The 5 Most Insane Original Uses of Famous Products

2:40:16 AM, Friday, January 13, 2012

"Plenty of products we use every day have interesting little back stories to them. For instance, we bet your fourth grade self could find no greater joy than discovering that Q-tips were originally called "Baby Gays."

But what is even more interesting than that is how some world-changing inventions were created for a completely different, and often stupid, purpose. For instance ..."



Bubble - Blowing Stars Seen in the Thousands by Public

1:20:19 AM, Friday, January 13, 2012

“A project to spot the "bubbles" that young, massive stars blow in the gas surrounding them has come up trumps, finding more than 5,000 of the objects.

That increases the known catalogue of bubbles by more than a factor of 10.

The discoveries were made by citizen scientists studying images from the Spitzer space telescope, as part of the Milky Way Project.

The much-improved catalogue has been submitted to the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

One of the great remaining mysteries of how our Universe works is how stars themselves form in vast clouds of swirling gas.

Astronomers are keen to find star-forming regions, hoping to catch the process at various stages to better understand it.

Groups of stars form in clusters near particularly large stars, and one good hint of these stellar nurseries is the "bubble" that they blow into the surrounding gas - a bubble that can be seen in pictures taken by Spitzer's infrared camera.

Human intervention

But the task to find and list all the bubbles in existing high-resolution images taken by Spitzer is a daunting one.

The largest previous cataloguing effort was carried out in 2007 by a handful of US astronomers poring through the images with their own eyes; it came up with 269 bubbles.

Automating the process with a computer algorithm is not an option, said Eli Bressert of the European Southern Observatory.

"To have an algorithm that can identify that kind of structure, no one can do it a the moment - it's way too complex," he told BBC News.

"You need two things: pattern recognition and the ability to judge, based on the other data that you've seen, what's good and what's bad - and that's what humans are good at."

Enter the Milky Way Project, which grew from the riotously successful citizen science project to classify and describe types of galaxies, Galaxy Zoo…”



Old Genes Make New, Giant - Headed Ants

2:33:20 AM, Thursday, January 12, 2012

“Every animal carries a record of its past in its genes -- sometimes teeth show up in birds and vestigial limbs on snakes and whales. Ants are no exception. What if that potential could be tapped? And what brings it out?

That’s what a group of scientists at McGill University thought when they ran into a colony of ants on Long Island. A colony of ants known as Pheidole morrisi (more commonly called big-headed ants) had members we call soldiers with really outsized heads and bodies. These were called “super soldiers.”

Pheidole, like many other ant species, are divided into castes, such as workers, queens and soldiers. Different foods are given to them when they are larvae, which triggers hormones that determine which caste the ant grows up to be.

Super soldiers occur naturally in some species of Pheidole in the southwestern United States and Mexico. But those living in upstate New York aren’t supposed to have the big heads. Ants are a pretty diverse lot and there are more than 1,100 species within even the Pheidole genus. But only eight of them naturally produce the super soldiers.

Biology professor Ehab Abouheif and PhD student Rajee Rajakumar wondered if the genes that build super soldiers were present in the Long Island ants all along, but were just waiting for some environmental factor to bring them out. The scientists first went to Arizona and collected two other species of ant in the same genus, Pheidole rhea andPheidole obtusospinosa, which both have a subclass of super soldiers. They then observed how those two species developed their super soliders.

Next, the scientists gave the young Long Island ants juvenile hormones at certain specific points in their development. In the Pheidole morrisi they got the super-soldier ants, which showed that the potential was always there. It just needed something to bring it out. One interesting phenomenon was the super soldiers had wing buds, which their cousins from Arizona did not. Many ant species develop wings as part of their development and ants and wasps share a common ancestor. The procedure worked in three different species of Pheidole, even though all three were separated by thousands of miles and millions of years of evolution.

Previously, few biologists thought such ancestral traits were important. They were just leftovers like the stuff in your attic. This shows that when necessary, nature has a “tool kit” that it can use to create big morphological changes -- some of them new.”



'Tatooine' Planet With Two Suns Could Host Habitable Moon?

3:11:13 AM, Wednesday, January 11, 2012

“A new planet found last fall may be orbiting two stars, but it's far from a real-life Tatooine. Dubbed Kepler-16b, the world is a cold, Saturn-size gas giant with little chance of hosting desert farmers like the fictional Star Wars world.

But according to new computer simulations, the Kepler-16 stars may still shine on a world fit for life—a hypothetical Earthlike moon orbiting Kepler-16b.

Kepler-16b was discovered by NASA's Kepler spacecraft, which looks for dips in starlight as a planet transits—or passes in front of—a star, as seen from Earth.

For the new study, Billy Quarles, a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Arlington, and colleagues simulated several possible configurations for a theoretical Earth-mass world in the Kepler-16 system.

The team started by drawing up a "laundry list of parameters" for defining the habitable zone—the region around a star where a planet gets enough heat to host liquid water, essential for life as we know it—Quarles said Monday during ameeting of the American Astronomical Society in Austin, Texas.

The researchers assumed that the brighter of the two Kepler-16 stars is the main source of heat and light for any orbiting worlds.

Based on that star's size and temperature, the team determined that the main habitable zone possible around the Kepler-16 stars would extend from about 34 million to 66 million miles (55 to 106 million kilometers) out.

Capturing a Habitable Moon

With a roughly circular orbit about 65 million miles from the stars, the Saturn-like planet is on the outer edge of this main habitable zone. And while this "Tatooine" is uninhabitable, an Earthlike moon in Kepler-16b's orbit could sustain life, the researchers said.

The group isn't yet ready to say whether a moon could have formed alongside the planet. But their simulations suggest a moon could have arrived, fully formed, later in Kepler-16b's life.

According to the new models, a planet closer to the brighter star, squarely in the habitable zone, could have long ago been ejected from its orbit due to gravitational interactions with the other objects in the system.

Kepler-16b's gravitational pull could have attracted the Earthlike planet during its journey outward, turning the world from planet to moon.

Such a moon would technically be in the main habitable zone of the Kepler-16 system and—unlike Mars, on the outer edge of the habitable zone in our solar system—the moon would be massive enough to retain an Earthlike atmosphere, the team said.

First to Find an Alien Moon?

If astronomers were to discover an Earthlike satellite orbiting Kepler-16b—a bigif—it would be a major first.

More than 700 alien planets have been confirmed so far, and Kepler has identified more than 2,000 more potential planets.

As of yet, though, no moons have been detected outside our solar system.

With the new study, "we can say there are exomoons possible around Kepler-16b, and what's important about this is that they are detectable ... down to 0.2 Earth masses," Quarles said.

To do so would require looking for subtle irregularities in the gas giant's orbit that could be caused by a moon's gravitational pull—something Kepler is equipped to do…”



Worm-Eating Plant Found - Kills via Underground Leaves

2:26:21 AM, Wednesday, January 11, 2012

“Scientists have solved an underground mystery: Why does a plant that survives on sunlight grow leaves beneath the earth?

Flowering plants of the genusPhilcoxia are the only known plants with the "awkward" feature of subterranean leave, said Rafael Oliveira, a plant biologist at the State University of Campinas in Brazil.

Oliveira's new research sheds new light on the oddity, showing that the leaves act as traps for tiny roundworms, or nematodes. This worm food is vital for the plant's survival in the nutrient-deprived savannas of central Brazil.

Plants may seem "boring for some people, because they don't move or actively hunt for their food," Oliveira said by email.

But "they have evolved a number of fascinating solutions to solve common problems, such as the lack of readily available nutrients or water."

Feeding Worms to Plants

Oliveira and colleagues had suspected that Philcoxia plants may be carnivorous, because their sandy habitats and their physical features—such as poorly developed root systems—resemble those of known carnivorous plants. The team had also recently observed roundworms on the plants' subterranean leaves.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers bred nematodes in nitrogen, a marker that would allow the scientists to know if the plant indeed digests worms.

The team then "fed" the nematodes to plants in the lab, and harvested their leaves 24 and 48 days later. A chemical analysis revealed nitrogen from the worms had been incorporated into the plant's leaves.

The results add up to the first evidence of a carnivorous plant with specific adaptations for trapping and eating roundworms, he added.

More Killer Plants Out There?

Only 0.2 percent of flowering plant species are known to digest meat.

But "if we start to look closer at microorganisms [such as nematodes] as a prey type," Oliveira predicted, "we might find more carnivorous plants."

Many plant behaviors, he added, "operate hidden from our view."”



Hackers Plot DIY Sputniks for Internet Freedom

10:01:08 PM, Monday, January 02, 2012

“(BBC) Computer hackers plan to take the internet beyond the reach of censors by putting their own communication satellites into orbit.

The scheme was outlined at the Chaos Communication Congress in Berlin.

The project's organisers said the Hackerspace Global Grid will also involve developing a grid of ground stations to track and communicate with the satellites.

Longer term they hope to help put an amateur astronaut on the moon.

Hobbyists have already put a few small satellites into orbit - usually only for brief periods of time - but tracking the devices has proved difficult for low-budget projects.

The hacker activist Nick Farr first put out calls for people to contribute to the project in August. He said that the increasing threat of internet censorship had motivated the project.

"The first goal is an uncensorable internet in space. Let's take the internet out of the control of terrestrial entities," Mr Farr said.

Beyond balloons

He cited the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (Sopa) in the United States as an example of the kind of threat facing online freedom. If passed, the act would allow for some sites to be blocked on copyright grounds.

Whereas past space missions have almost all been the preserve of national agencies and large companies, amateur enthusiasts have in recent years sent a few payloads into orbit.

These devices have mostly been sent up using balloons and are tricky to pinpoint precisely from the ground.

According to Armin Bauer, a 26-year-old enthusiast from Stuttgart who is working on the Hackerspace Global Grid, this is largely due to lack of funding.

"Professionals can track satellites from ground stations, but usually they don't have to because, if you pay a large sum [to send the satellite up on a rocket], they put it in an exact place," Mr Bauer said.

In the long run, a wider hacker aerospace project aims to put an amateur astronaut onto the moon within the next 23 years.

"It is very ambitious so we said let's try something smaller first," Mr Bauer added.

Ground network

The Berlin conference was the latest meeting held by the Chaos Computer Club, a decades-old German hacker group that has proven influential not only for those interested in exploiting or improving computer security, but also for people who enjoy tinkering with hardware and software.

When Mr Farr called for contributions to Hackerspace, Mr Bauer and others decided to concentrate on the communications infrastructure aspect of the scheme…”



Nasa's Gravity Twins Now Circling Moon

9:51:47 PM, Monday, January 02, 2012

“The US space agency (Nasa) has succeeded in placing two new satellites in orbit around the Moon.

Both spacecraft were put in elliptical paths around the lunar body over the weekend after performing braking manoeuvres following their more than 100-day journey from Earth.

The identical Grail twins are to map gravity variations across the lunar body in unprecedented detail.

This will help scientists refine our theories for how the Moon formed.

It will also enable them to test new ideas, such as the provocative suggestion made earlier this year that there were probably two moons in the sky above Earth billions of years ago.

Lead scientist Dr Maria Zuber is certainly hoping for some dramatic discoveries.

"Grail is a journey to the centre of the Moon and it will use exceedingly precise measurements of gravity to reveal what the inside of the Moon is like," the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researcher said.

"This information will be combined with the plethora of remarkable observations of the Moon that have been taken by other satellites before, and together they will enable us to reconstruct the Moon's early evolution."

The 300kg Grail spacecraft were launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, last September, and took a long spiral out to their destination.

This weekend, they approached the Moon over the south pole, 25 hours apart. Each satellite in turn fired its main engine to slow it and put it in an elliptical orbit around the lunar sphere.

This orbit has a period of 11.5 hours and must now gradually be reduced in size and circularised before any science can begin.

A series of further burns on each spacecraft should achieve this goal by March.

The twins will then map the small variations in gravity across the lunar surface from an altitude of 55km.

These gravity differences are the result of an uneven distribution of mass. Obvious examples at the Moon's surface include big mountain ranges or deep impact basins, but even inside the lunar body the rock will be arranged in an irregular fashion, with some regions being denser than others.

All this will have a subtle influence on the pull of gravity sensed by the over-flying spacecraft.

The Grail twins will make their measurements by carrying out a carefully calibrated pursuit of each other.

As the lead spacecraft flies through the uneven gravity field, it will experience small accelerations or decelerations. The second spacecraft, following some 100-200km behind, will detect these disturbances as very slight changes in the separation between the pair - deviations that are not much more than the width of a human red blood cell.

When the gravity map is combined with comparable-resolution topographical information showing the surface highs and lows, scientists should be able to deduce the Moon's probable internal structure and composition. This is fundamental knowledge that will play into theories of how the lunar body formed and how it has changed through time…”



LHC Reports Discovery of its First New Particle

12:03:27 AM, Friday, December 23, 2011

“(BBC) The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) on the Franco-Swiss border has made its first clear observation of a new particle since opening in 2009.

It is called Chi_b (3P) and will help scientists understand better the forces that hold matter together.

The as-yet unpublished discovery is reported on the Arxiv pre-print server.

The LHC is exploring some of the fundamental questions in "big physics" by colliding proton particles together in a huge underground facility.

Detail in the sub-atomic wreckage from these impacts is expected to yield new information about the way the Universe is constructed.

The Chi_b (3P) is a more excited state of Chi particles already seen in previous collision experiments, explained Prof Roger Jones, who works on the Atlas detector at the LHC.

"The new particle is made up of a 'beauty quark' and a 'beauty anti-quark', which are then bound together," he told BBC News.

"People have thought this more excited state should exist for years but nobody has managed to see it until now.

"It's also interesting for what it tells us about the forces that hold the quark and the anti-quark together - the strong nuclear force. And that's the same force that holds, for instance, the atomic nucleus together with its protons and the neutrons."

The LHC is designed to fill in gaps in the Standard Model - the current framework devised to explain the interactions of sub-atomic particles - and also to look for any new physics beyond it.

In particular, it is using the collisions to try to pin down the famous Higgs particle, which physicists hypothesize can explain why matter has mass.

Discoveries such as Chi_b (3P) are an important part of this quest because they add to the wider background knowledge, says Prof Jones, from Lancaster University, UK.

"The better we understand the strong force, the more we understand a large part of the data that we see, which is quite often the background to the more exciting things we are looking for, like the Higgs.

"So, it's helping put together that basic understanding that we have and need to do the new physics."

Prof Paul Newman, from the University of Birmingham, added: "This is the first time such a new particle has been found at the LHC. Its discovery is a testament to the very successful running of the collider in 2011 and to the superb understanding of our detector which has been achieved by the Atlas collaboration already."

And Andy Chisholm, a PhD student from Birmingham who worked on the analysis, said: "Analysing the billions of particle collisions at the LHC is fascinating. There are potentially all kinds of interesting things buried in the data, and we were lucky to look in the right place at the right time."”



NASA's Kepler Finds Two Earth-Size Planets Around Sunlike Star

4:36:03 AM, Wednesday, December 21, 2011

“Two new planets found orbiting a sunlike star are the first truly Earth-size worlds discovered by NASA's Kepler mission, scientists announced today.

The find comes on the heels of Kepler's first potentially Earthlike planet orbiting squarely within its star's water-friendly "Goldilocks zone"—the region that's not too hot and not too cold for liquid water to exist on a planet's surface.

Designated Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f, the two new planets are comparable in size to Earth and Venus: At 0.87 times the size of Earth, Kepler-20e is slightly smaller than Venus, while Kepler-20f is 1.03 times Earth's radius.

But both new extrasolar planets—or exoplanets—orbit their star much too closely to be within the habitable zone.

In fact, the entire Kepler-20 system is believed to contain at least five planets all orbiting their star within a distance smaller than that between Mercury and the sun.

This orbital distance makes the planets very hot. For instance, Kepler-20e is estimated to have an average surface temperature of 1,400ºF (760ºC), while Kepler-20f is a "cooler" 800ºF (427ºC).

By contrast, Earth's average surface temperature is 57.2ºF (14°C).

Still, this is the first confirmation of truly Earth-size planets by the Kepler team—a key goal of the overall mission.

"December 2011 may be remembered as the first time humanity was able to discover an Earth-size planet in orbit around another star," lead author Francois Fressin, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said today during a NASA teleconference.

The discovery "demonstrates for the first time that Earth-size planets exist around other stars, and that we are able to detect them."

New Planets a Tight-Knit Group

Previously discovered exoplanets have all been considerably larger than Earth.

Even the just announced Goldilocks world, Kepler-22b, was estimated to be 2.4 times Earth's radius and is thought to have a fairly low density, meaning it could have a thick atmosphere and a surface quite unlike Earth's.

With the new Kepler discovery, we now have confirmation of planets that "are exactly the right size [to be Earthlike] ... but are too hot" for life as we know it, team member David Charbonneau, also with the CfA, told National Geographic News…”



In Memoriam: Writer Christopher Hitchens Dies, 1949-2011

1:03:49 AM, Friday, December 16, 2011

-- An intellectual champion among us lowly primates. Below is a very recent video that sums it all up really well. I raise my glass to you, Hitch! Thank you.



Baby Seal Breaks Into House and Curls Up on Sofa

9:04:44 PM, Thursday, December 15, 2011

"New Zealander Annette Swoffer got the surprise of her life when she found a baby seal in her kitchen, who later began to snooze on her couch, the New Zealand Herald reports.

According to the report, the seal wandered from the bay waterfront, through a residential area, across busy roads, under a gate, through a cat door, and up some stairs before he was found at around 9:30 p.m.

"I thought 'I'm hallucinating, this is just wrong,'" Swoffer told the paper. "Then it looks at me with those huge brown eyes. It was so cute..."

Swoffer then called the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), who called the Department of Conservation. According to a report by, the department was already looking for the pup.

When biodiversity program manager Chris Clark came to pick up the animal, he told Swoffer he'd been looking for the seal all afternoon and that it had likely just been weaned from its mother.

Department of Conservation's Katrina Knill elaborated on the state of the New Zealand fur seal population in an email to The Huffington Post:

"NZ fur seal populations are starting to recover in the western Bay of Plenty, and are believed to be breeding on Motuanau (Plate) Island, which is approximately 12km offshore.

At this time of year, young seals are dispersing from the rookeries. Seal pups may often spend days at a time alone, whilst the mother is away foraging for food.

Seals usually occupy rocky shores in places that have some protection from heavy seas and are often found resting on Bay of Plenty beaches.

Occasionally they travel inland (usually via estuaries and waterways). When on land they can become disoriented and have been found on previous occasions in unexpected places such as backyards, drains and streets.

Seals are wild animals and the Department's policy is to return them to the care of their natural habitat."

Knill went on to write that seals can carry infectious diseases and injure humans, so members of the public should contact authorities (0800DOCHOT in NZ) if they see a seal in trouble or in an odd location. Click here to learn more about New Zealand's fur seals."



Supermassive black hole will 'eat' gas cloud

4:06:08 AM, Thursday, December 15, 2011

"Researchers have spotted a giant gas cloud spiralling into the supermassive black hole at our galaxy's centre.

Though it is known that black holes draw in everything nearby, it will be the first chance to see one consume such a cloud.

As it is torn apart, the turbulent area around the black hole will become unusually bright, giving astronomers a chance to learn more about it.

The cloud, which is described in Nature, should meet its end in 2013.

Researchers using the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope estimate that despite its size, the cloud has a total mass of only about three times that of Earth.

They have plotted the cloud's squashed, oval-shaped path and estimate it has doubled its speed in the last seven years - to 2,350km per second.

It should spiral in to within about 40 billion kilometres of the black hole in the middle of 2013.

Our local supermassive black hole, dubbed Sagittarius A*, lies about 27,000 light-years away, and has a mass about four million times that of our Sun.

As the name implies, beyond a certain threshold point - the event horizon - nothing can escape its pull, not even light itself.

But outside that regime is a swirling mass of material, not unlike water circling a drain. In astronomical terms, is a relatively quiet zone about which little is known.

That looks set to change, though, as the gas cloud approaches.

Spaghetti tester

It does not comprise enough matter to hold itself together under its own gravity, as a star might, so the cloud will begin to elongate as it meets its doom.

"The idea of an astronaut close to a black hole being stretched out to resemble spaghetti is familiar from science fiction," said lead author of the study Stefan Gillessen, from Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany.

"But we can now see this happening for real to the newly discovered cloud. It is not going to survive the experience."

It is likely that about half of the cloud will be swallowed up, with the remainder flung back out into space.

But this violent process will literally shed light on the closest example we have of an enigmatic celestial object.

The acceleration of the cloud's constituent material will create a shower of X-rays that will help astronomers learn more about our local black hole.

As astronomer Mark Morris of the University of California Los Angeles put it in an accompanying article in Nature, "many telescopes are likely to be watching"."



Atom Smasher's Higgs Particle Findings: Physicists React

12:35:32 AM, Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"Scientists at the world's largest particle accelerator announced today (Dec. 13) that they'd narrowed down the possibilities for the existence of the elusive Higgs boson particle. This particle, long theorized but not yet detected, is thought to explain why particles have mass.

The data so far from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) indicate that if it exists at all, the Higgs must weigh between 115 and 130 times the mass of a proton (a unit denoted by gigaelectronvolts, or GeV). Two experiments at LHC, called ATLAS and CMS, also show hints that they've seen a particle weighing about 124 or 125 GeV that could be the Higgs boson.

Though it's too soon for physicists to declare a definite discovery of the Higgs, experts said the findings so far represent an important step forward. Here's what some leading physicists have to say about today's announcement:

"This is not the end, but the beginning. The Higgs was just the last missing piece of the Standard Model of particles. But that theory is ugly; it is a theory only a mother can love. The real breakthrough is when the LHC discovers dark matter or strings. That would be spectacular. So there is a whole new universe beyond the Higgs."

—Michio Kaku, City College of New York theoretical physicist, told LiveScience

"Both experiments showed a very impressive turnaround in processing the data and very good understanding of their detectors. It is unprecedented to have full data samples from such complex experiments to be analyzed in a fairly sophisticated way in just one month since the end of the proton-proton run.

—Greg Landsberg, Brown University physicist, CMS physics coordinator at the LHC, told LiveScience

"ATLAS data, just like CMS ones contain interesting excesses. Whether what we both see is a real signal or just a funny game [that] statistics often play with us, remains to be seen.

"This looks to me like a lot more than 'intriguing hints': it's about what you would expect if a Higgs was there at 125 GeV, highly unlikely to see if there is no Higgs there."

— Peter Woit, Columbia University mathematician, from his blog "Not Even Wrong"

"Essentials: what we're seeing is pretty consistent with the existence of a Higgs boson around 123-126 GeV. The data aren't nearly conclusive enough to say that it's definitely there. But the LHC is purring along, and a year from now we'll know a lot more.

"It's like rushing to the tree on Christmas morning, ripping open a giant box, and finding a small note that says 'Santa is on his way! Hang in there!' The LHC is real and Santa is not, but you know what I mean."

—Sean Carroll, California Institute of Technology physicist, from his blog "Cosmic Variance," hosted by Discover Magazine

"All in all, it's a definite maybe. Putting the results together in the way only a frequentist can the result is a 2.4 sigma detection. In other words, nothing any serious scientist would call convincing."

—Pete Coles, Cardiff University theoretical astrophysicist, from his blog "In The Dark"

"Two independent (and highly competitive) research teams, involving thousands of scientists, using each of these detectors have seen moderately convincing evidence that the elusive Higgs particle has been created in some of the proton–proton collisions.

"This is a challenging experiment as the detectors can't see the Higgs particle directly — it is a short-lived particle that quickly falls apart (decays) — but, rather, they infer its presence by seeing its decay products."

—Brian Greene, Columbia University physicist, on the "World Science Festival" blog

"The proof will come in the next year. The spectacularly successful LHC accelerator (which the Europeans built when the U.S. killed the superconducting super collider in Texas) will produce 4 times more Higgs particles in the next year. The significance of the hints reported today could turn into proof beyond a doubt come next October..."



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