“I think we have it”

In honor of the Higgs announcements from CMS and ATLAS, a physics haiku I’m calling “The Heaviest Boson.”

Did you see that bump?

Standard Model wins again.

Magic number five.

Congratulations everyone!!!!

Update: The excellent radio show The World is asking its listeners to come up their own Higgs haikus. Submit yours here.


Ten physics band names

Only a few physicists have ever achieved true rock star status, but that doesn’t stop the rest of them from joining bands. Physics labs around the world play host to numerous official and unofficial rock bands, from CDF’s Drug Sniffing Drugs (last seen crying into their beers at the afterparty for the Tevatron shutdown) to Les Horribles Cernettes across the Atlantic. Below, ten suggestions for band names inspired by the history of my favorite science. Suggested styles, if any, in parentheses.

1. The Ultraviolet Catastrophe

2. The Strangelets (60s-style girl group)

3. Enrico Fermi and the Chicago Piles

4. Los Alamos Ranch School (songs to wear sweaters to)

5. Charm and Strange (acoustic duo, lots of whistling)

6. Spectral Lines (electronica)

7. I Am Become Death (metal)

8. SUSY and the Banshees (80s cover band)

9. Cosmic Ray (lounge singer)

10. Higgsino and the WIMPs

Leave your suggestions for hit singles in the comments. For more on the music physicists make, check out this article in symmetry.


The transit of Venus, then and now

Yesterday was the last transit of Venus until 2117, making it a bona fide once- (or twice-, if you caught the last one in 2004) in-a-lifetime event. Only six other transits of Venus have been recorded, starting in 1639 with the observations of a young British astronomer named Jeremiah Horrocks. While Johannes Kepler predicted the transit of 1631, it wasn’t visible in Europe and it appears that no one observed it. Kepler thought we would have to wait another 130 years for the next chance to see Venus meander across the sun, but Horrocks caught an error in his hero’s calculations and realized it would happen again in 1639. (Now we know these transits always occur in pairs eight years apart.) Despite some inconvenient clouds, he managed to observe the event that year. Unfortunately, he wasn’t as lucky in his other endeavors, never formally graduating from Cambridge—making him something of an outsider scientist—and suddenly dying at age 22, just two years after observing the transit.

One of NASA’s many amazing pictures of the 2012 transit of Venus.

The next pair of transits happened in 1761 and 1769, and this time there were many more people watching the sky. Earlier in the century, Edmund “The Comet” Halley laid out a method to use data about the transit of Venus to calculate the distance between the Earth and the sun and, from there, the size of the solar system. (Here’s the best non-technical explanation I’ve found of how this worked.) His method depended on the transit being observed at different points around the world, so a bunch of European explorers set off for the ends of the earth with astronomers in tow in anticipation of the event. Read the rest of this entry »


Four great physics road trips

In 2009, I went on a physics-themed road trip (and wrote about it). I didn’t know it then, but I was participating in a grand tradition. Here are four great road trips from physics history.

On the road with Robert Oppenheimer, left, and Ernest Lawrence in 1932. Photo courtesy of the American Institute of Physics.

1. Ernest Lawrence goes West, 1928. After finishing his Ph.D. at Yale and spending a few years there as an assistant professor, Ernest Lawrence hopped in a Reo Flying Cloud and headed west to a new job at UC Berkeley. Once there, he invented the world’s first particle accelerator, founded the country’s first National Laboratory, planted the seeds for American Big Science, and put the U.S.’s experimental physics program on the scientific map. (His theoretical counterpart Robert Oppenheimer arrived at Berkeley one year later in a gray Chrysler.)

2. Glenn Seaborg gets on a train with most of the world’s plutonium, 1943. Seaborg’s team isolated the first tiny sample of plutonium on August 20, 1942 at the Met Lab in Chicago. About a year later, he shipped a 200-milligram sample of element 94 to Los Alamos, where it was used in an experiment that proved it could sustain a chain reaction. Seaborg soon followed his precious sample to New Mexico to spend his well deserved summer vacation lurking around Santa Fe with his wife and most definitely NOT visiting the secret Manhattan Project laboratory up on the mesa. Headed back to Chicago at the end of July, he offered to take the speck of plutonium he had loaned to the war effort with him. Robert Wilson made the hand off before dawn in a Santa Fe restaurant, arriving, according to Richard Rhodes, “in a pickup armed Western-style with his personal Winchester .32 deer-hunting rifle to guard a highly valuable but barely visible treasure.” The less flamboyant and decidedly unarmed Seaborg simply put the sample in his suitcase and caught the train home. Soon, much larger quantities of plutonium and enriched uranium would begin arriving at Los Alamos from the production facilities in Hanford, Washington, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

3. Richard Fenyman ditches Freeman Dyson to chase a girl, 1948. After World War II ended, many physicists who had devoted themselves to the technical challenges of building an atomic bomb finally had a chance to tackle some of their science’s lingering theoretical problems. One of these was an inconsistency in quantum electrodynamics, the quantum field theory that described photons and electrons. Richard Fenyman published a solution to the problem in 1947, but his explanation was seemingly at odds with the work of two other scientists, Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, and no one was quite sure how to move forward. In the summer of 1948, Fenyman and his friend Freeman Dyson took a road trip from New York to Albuquerque (what can I say, physicists <3 New Mexico), picking up hitchhikers, getting speeding tickets, and staying in at least one brothel along the way. (Ian Sample assures us “they sought only shelter.”) When they arrived in Albuquerque, Fenyman took off in search of a girl, leaving Dyson to aimlessly travel the Southwest on a series of Greyhound buses. He eventually boarded one that would take him back to New York and, somewhere in the middle of Nebraska, suddenly saw that the three competing theories about quantum electrodynamics were actually one and the same. Quantum field theory was saved.

4. Gerry Guralnik and Dick Hagen drive to Germany to be insulted by Werner Heisenberg, 1965. In the early 1960s, the question of how particles acquired mass was just beginning to be discussed. A handful of physicists scattered across the U.S. and Europe more or less independently worked their way toward a preliminary answer, describing a field that permeates space and gives mass to some particles but not others. Gerry Guralnik, Dick Hagen, and Tom Kibble were working on this problem at Imperial College in London, publishing their first paper a bit behind the other teams in 1964. Guralnik and Hagen planned to give talks on their work the next summer at a conference hosted by Werner Heisenberg in a town outside Munich. Since they were both Americans and wanted to see more of Europe, they decided to make a vacation of it and picked up a cheap car in France. After encountering artichokes for the first time in Paris, they made their way to Bavaria, where, much to their chagrin, their work was met with “almost uniform disbelief,” according to Guralnik. Heisenberg himself called their theory “junk,” causing Guralnik to doubt his future as a physicist. If scientists at the LHC find the Higgs boson, Guralnik and Hagen will finally be proved right.

Sources: The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes and Massive by Ian Sample.


SpaceX and NASA, sitting in a tree

Today SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft made history by being the first commercially built vehicle to dock with the International Space Station. So, yay for commercial spaceflight! I’ve always said I’m going to spend my first million dollars (HA!) on a ticket to the moon. But as I argue in an article published by GOOD yesterday, the grand-triumph-of-capitalism narrative that’s being repeated ad naseum isn’t the whole story.

In reality, Dragon’s mission is not a libertarian adventure. Rather, it is the result of a deeply collaborative effort between SpaceX and NASA that could change the way we go to space, just like past public-private partnerships that gave us railroads and commercial air travel.

Dragon makes its way toward the International Space Station. It successfully docked this morning. Photo courtesy of SpaceX.

Not only does SpaceX need NASA to lend it some of its hard-won legitimacy, it also needs the agency’s money to get its still risky business off the ground (pun intended). And NASA needs SpaceX, too. If the space agency is really going to send people to Mars and beyond in the next few decades, it needs to start outsourcing routine trips to low Earth orbit and dedicate its increasingly limited resources toward exploratory missions ASAP.

Finally, a fun/sad fact I learned while reporting this story: it will take the astronauts on the space station TWENTY-FIVE HOURS to unpack the cargo Dragon is delivering. Truly every kid’s dream job!


DIY Particle Physics

In honor of the blog’s new name, an article about people who build their own cyclotrons, via symmetry.

For many of those obsessed, the only way to satiate their hunger for these machines is to build their own. There are no guidebooks or instruction manuals, and if you bought the raw materials off the shelf, it would cost around $125,000. On average, amateur cyclotrons take two to three years to build.

“It didn’t take long to become obsessed….Where I would be without the cyclotron project I cannot even begin to imagine.” —Tim Ponter. Photo by Tim Koeth, via symmetry.

The amateur cyclotron builders mentioned range from high school students to college professors to Fermilab scientists. To bring down the cost of their hobby they scavenge old equipment, a technique familiar to the first cyclotron builders. Columbia’s cyclotron, for example, was built partly from salvaged parts in the 1930s. It ended its life as scrap metal.

The cyclotron’s heyday as a cutting-edge research tool is mostly over, though they are still widely used in medicine. The largest one ever built is 60 feet in diameter and is still running at the Canadian physics lab TRIUMF. The smallest involves a single electron trapped in a magnetic field and is perhaps more appropriately called an artificial atom.


Drink Like an Aztec

Most of my recent trip to Mexico City was spent researching (i.e., drinking) pulque, an ancient alcoholic beverage made of fermented cactus sap. The resulting article was just published in The Daily.

Pineapple pulque at Las Duelistas in downtown Mexico City. Photo by Beto Adame for The Daily.

Pulque is not a drink for the faint of heart. Once used by the Aztecs as a ceremonial beverage, it is made from the fermented sap of the maguey cactus and has a thick, silky texture reminiscent of an alcoholic lassi and a raw flavor that epitomizes the phrase “acquired taste.” Often blended with sugar and various kinds of fruits or vegetables to make flavored “curados,” pulque combines the probiotic kick of kombucha with an intoxicating effect that can feel mildly hallucinogenic. One friend described his first sip as “unsettling.” Another lost the feeling in his fingertips after downing a mug-full.

Read the full story here.


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