December 12, 2012

The Anthropomorphic Principle

The anthropic principle, I think, is one of the more pleasurable mind games embraced by new physics. Be it strong (conscious life is inevitable in this universe) or weak (a universe compatible with conscious life will be inevitably beheld by that conscious life), the "anthropy" implied is us: not just conscious life in general, but carbon-based human beings capable of questioning the parameters of our existence. I'm amused that Wikipedia cites Douglas Adams on this (though, haven't we all?): "English writer Douglas Adams, who wrote The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, used the metaphor of a living puddle examining its own shape, since, to those living creatures, the universe may appear to fit them perfectly (while in fact, they simply fit the universe perfectly)." The percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere supports our respiration system exactly; the amount of dark energy in the universe inflates space at just the right speed to enable life-supporting gravitational pull; the quantity of buffalo mozzarella Lombardi's tops its pizza with is precisely suited to our taste buds. And so on. It's Descartes repackaged (j'observe, donc je suis) and Heidegger redux ("Man only inhabits the keeping of what gives him food for thought--he does not create the keeping.") It's also theoretical evidence that there must be other universes, and therefore, other forms of life--but unique to their environments. Cue Brian Greene's elaboration on the multiverse theory, and Seth Lloyd's interpretation of quantum information theory, and you've got a universe filled with flipping bits quantum-mechanically powered to produce increasingly complex life forms.

Swing over to the subatomic, and you've got another element of existential observation: the Higgs particle. Advertised to endow electrons and W and Z bosons with mass, the Higgs is one of many entangled factors that allowed this universe to evolve in our favor. It's also an experimental holy grail, as it completes the Standard Model; even more intriguing would be data that hints at a physical framework beyond the SM. Tomorrow's forum at CERN may reveal that 2012 data from ATLAS and CMS shows discrepancies from what the SM predicts, bolstering some of my favorite theories, including some kind of supersymmetric standard model. 


The real fun, though, has already begun as pop culture takes an anthropomorphic turn: the Higgs particle was nominated by Time Magazine as its "Person of the Year" for 2012! Posthumanists unite. (Regrettably, Time's writer got his facts about the Higgs all kinds of wrong, a low moment for science journalism.) It's silly, but also a stunning indication of how far quantum physics has come in terms of layman awareness; four years ago, when I started writing this blog, my romance with the Higgs was an outlier. Now the Higgs memoir can be titled Collective Paraphilia: Why I Revealed Myself. Because isn't that the implication of such a nomination, that the Higgs played a role in its own discovery? I'm kidding, I think the decision rested more with the controversy of identifying one physicist as the hero, and not Peter Higgs and all of CERN, but still. I dig it, and it makes me wish so hard that Barbara Johnson were alive to write a book about it. A probabilistic object: the ultimate deconstruction.


October 10, 2012

Flummoxing Schrödinger

It's an old gedankenexperiment, the cat-in-the-box analogy, but one that has cultural tenacity for its ease of use (and, happily, a meme-friendly protagonist): if you're not looking, that cat could be alive, or not. Quantum mechanics tells us that, on a particular level, it's actually both: the position is indeterminate because it's simultaneous (in parlance, the particle inhabits a "superposition"). That is, until an observer arrives on the scene, which changes everything--we're back to that old measurement problem, one of the more fascinating ontological aspects of quantum physics, I think. (Niels Bohr had much to say about this, and I generally agree with him; also check out Karen Barad's intriguing "agential realist" interpretation.) 

The salient question is this: if nothing has inherent determinate properties until an interaction occurs, what is an object prior to observation? The strange answer is a set of probabilities: Schrödinger's cat is, statistically, both alive and dead before we lay eyes on him. Similarly, a particle occupies multiple possible positions and/or velocities prior to a cut enacted by a STM or other apparatus. For ages, it was accepted as impossible to observe a particle's position and velocity simultaneously, and huge advances in q.m. have been made around this limitation. But that's all about the change: the winners of the 2012 Nobel in Physics, Serge Haroche and David Wineland--who have been friends for 25 years--have, using photons, atoms, and mirrors, discovered a way to directly observe individual quantum particles without destroying them. 

The implications of this experimental coup are vast, but the most immediate application could be a pragmatically transformative one: quantum computing. Still in its infancy (Seth Lloyd at MIT has built a prototype that looks sort of like an IBM circa 1975), quantum computing manipulates quantum bits, or "qubits," at a potential rate that far surpasses classical binaries (which are restricted to being in one position at a time) precisely by tapping into the fact that, quantum mechanically, the qubits explore every possible solution to a query at the same time before reaching the correct result. The work of Haroche and Wineland allows physicists to not only observe individual quantum particles, but to control them. It remains to be seen how profoundly this affects our understanding of quantum mechanics, as opposed to its applications, but it's yet another example of how concepts previously quarantined in the metaphysical realm--like Schrödinger's thought experiment--have been successfully applied in the lab. Reuters has the money quote: "Wineland is a dedicated experimentalist, not bothered by the bizarre philosophical implications of quantum mechanics, such as the notion that reality does not exist until an observer measures it." Italics mine: the "bizarre implications" of q.m., if not relegated any longer to Schrödinger's box, are, well, catnip to philosophers of science, and underlie what could be a complete decentering of the human experience. (OK, one more comic. Originally from Analog Science Fiction and Fact.) 

Scientific American has a podcast up, and some great links to early review articles etc. by Wineland and others. Also: it's textbook-y, but Haroche's Exploring the Quantum: Atoms, Cavities, and Photons is all about the gedankenexperiment made real. 

UPDATE: there's some chatter about why the Higgs discovery didn't prompt a Nobel this year, but it should be no surprise: there are still data sets to analyze and findings to corroborate etc. Most speculate that a 2013 Nobel is assured for Higgs et al. (What will get interesting is which three physicists are selected for the award.) Matt Strassler says more here

October 4, 2012

A Revolution in Multiverse

In Kuhnian terminology, the current state of cosmology is testing the limits of "normal science." Essentially, this means that physicists have begun to suspect that things are not strictly what they seem; that certain mathematical conclusions hint at truths that, within our current scientific paradigm, can't be empirically verified. But that doesn't delimit the possibility for new knowledge: look how long Peter Higgs had to wait before his groundbreaking prediction was revealed to be accurate. It took the biggest, most expensive, most sophisticated piece of machinery on earth to find the Higgs-like particle...and it was already included in the Standard Model! As exciting as BSM physics may be in theory, its yield is still out of reach--but not necessarily forever.

In fact, folks like Marcelo Gleiser at Dartmouth suspect that a revolution is nigh: namely, the multiverse theory. He dubs this a possible "third Copernican revolution," and one that carries with it the heaviest philosophical implications yet: that our creation story, the big bang, is totally ordinary, and just one of trillions. (Brian Greene's The Hidden Reality goes into more detail; his theory about the percentage of dark energy in our universe, and what that implies, is fascinating.) It's a mind-bending realignment, for sure, but hardly stranger than repositioning the earth from being the center of the galaxy, or the galaxy from being the center of the universe. Each time, we realize anew how vast, how unexpected, our celestial home is.

But: how can we affirm whether the multiverse is real? Gleiser suggests that there may be physical remnants of the birth of this universe, but that the problem of an infinitely-expanding and infinitely-existing entity pushes current mathematical language to the breaking point. I've read some writers who feel that incorporating a heuristic model is vital to any post-SM physics; others fear that, barring a legitimate breakthrough in technology (quantum computing could help), empirical verification of the more exotic theories--the multiverse, m-theory, the holographic principle--may be permanently beyond our capacity to verify them.

I remain an optimist: the power of the mind, and its proven ability to supersede epistemological constraints, gives me hope. That, plus the fact that there are (possibly) a trillion other Einsteins out there: surely one of them will not give up on quantum mechanics and deduce a Theory of Everything after all! Maybe it's time to change the tune we beam into outer space from "Across the Universe" to this, and admit that our most exceptional cultural product is no longer the Beatles, but the Higgs. (I mean, it's close, but...)

Bonus links: Thomas Kuhn interviews Niels BohrNPR talks Flatland! An updated, visual interpretation of the Drake equation! Plus, images of STAR, PHENIX, and NSLS at Brookhaven National Laboratory, where I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon as a visiting photog. My excitement level may or may not have weirded out the experimentalists, but come on: PARTICLE COLLIDERS!


September 6, 2012

The Heart of Matter


It’s back-to-school season, and as emerging minds get to work across the world, it's time to once again laud the physicists who make an effort to reach out to non-scientists: only by corresponding across the esoteric boundary, I think, can the reverberative effects of new information--even new facts--make an impact at a sociological level. Knowledge, after all, doesn't do much in a vacuum; any epistemological system needs feedback and impact and even collapse in order to thrive. Think about classical mechanics, and the ways in which different theoretical evolutions tested and pushed at its tenets: some survived, others were rejected, and still others were incorporated into quantum mechanics but understood as part of an altered paradigm. Entanglements and transfigurations work at a particular level, but also at a discursive one: and my favorite form of discourse, the kinds of texts listed in the library on this site, are often purposefully inclusive, and allow anyone curious enough to participate in the larger social-scientific conversation.

Because of the highly complex and abstract nature of new physics, though, an important sector of the world's population is often overlooked: kids. Can concepts like decoherence or string theory be explained using simple language? It would be tough, because the metaphorical and analogical tools so often relied on by scientists would have no referent to someone in grade school; and moreover, it would be boring. The books I love don't have photos, they don't have texture, and they're not LCD screens. Even though the Higgs boson is the most exciting thing happening in the world right now, it's a tough sell to a person with a 20-second attention span.

Luckily, the folks at Papadakis Publishing have provided us with a clever and charming solution: the gorgeously detailed pop-up book Voyage to the Heart of  Matter: The ATLAS Experiment at CERN by Anton Radevsky and Emma Sanders. From time travel to particle collisions to a history of the universe, the many details of the LHC come to life in colorful and interactive ways. Accompanied by accurate, actual photos of the collider and its parts, and featuring big and intricately constructed cardboard pop-up designs, it's the perfect kid-friendly introduction to our universe's mysteries. After all, future Einsteins are out there, they just need to be inspired; and what better way to catapult young imaginations to new heights than building a miniature version of ATLAS at home? 

And: once the spark is ignited, the World Science Festival, New York Hall of Science, and Brookhaven National Laboratory are all enchanting and engaging places to introduce someone small to the wonders of physics. 

August 21, 2012

'Legitimate' Political Science

Irony is a concept infrequently applied with accuracy: it's a tricky set of circumstances that need to align, and mere coincidence or kismet--not even having 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife--embodies the fullness, the wonder, of true irony. So there is a silver lining in Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin's sexist and woefully unscientific comments about rape and pregnancy: he's currently a member of the House Committee on Science. The question: is this verbal irony, or dramatic? Is Akin aware of the incongruity of his political position and his ignorant statements, or is he truly missing the joke?

It's not just that Akin has a blurry grasp on how the female reproductive system works, or that he's been a stalwart pro-lifer throughout his career; Akin's statements reveal something more profoundly troubling about an institutional disregard for scientific fact. His claim that a woman's body "shuts down" against pregnancy if she is "legitimately" raped implies, to start, that any woman who found herself impregnated as a result of an unwanted sexual encounter was not actually raped. It's the same tired "she was really asking for it" argument that has plagued every sexual liberation effort of the last century. But it's also about a disillusion of accurate information: his description of the way a woman's body works, and his baldly subjective preface "from what I understand from doctors," employs the kind of deferred pseudo-authority that keeps right-wing media machines churning. No one is accountable; there is no source; there is no such thing as a fact without interpretation. Akin, in one sentence, disregards fifty percent of the people on this planet and an entire history of biological science. By some miracle of election-year campaign strategy, even his political peers are condemning him. (Some, not all.) And yet, Akin refuses to resign. (You can sign a petition to remove Akin from Congress here.)

The confluence of Akin's dangerous comments and America's recent scientific successes is not a coincidence, it's a trend: the esoteric circles within politics and science have become more hermetic; the public relies more than ever on information mediated by an eclectic and diverse set of mouthpieces. The Higgs boson and Mars, on the one hand, are accomplishments so specialized and abstract that none of us are capable of forming reasonable theories outside of what we're told. This is a video of the Curiosity rover landing on Mars? I believe you. Both ATLAS and CMS verified the Higgs at 125 TeV? I believe that, too. I could choose not to believe it, of course, since no one can really provide a local corroboration; but part of participating in the human experience is allocating trust in situations that warrant it. Science, as we understand it, deserves our (discerning) trust.

The real problem is when politics, with its glossy "political science" cover, acts like its members have a similar privilege of epistemology. An elected official wields more than just the power of a Congressional vote; he has unprecedented access to a malleable authority over a public he represents. When Akin--a member of the House's Committee on Science, remember--says something he thinks he knows from a doctor who may or may not have said that thing, some people will turn to each other and say "Really? Is that a thing--that a woman can't get pregnant if she's really being raped?" Because information has no guarantee, and information is the only capital that crosses the esoteric boundary to the masses. The repercussions here are caught in an unfortunate feedback loop: one, it reveals an endemic disregard for scientific fact among members of Congress: it's impossible to reconcile how a middle-aged man in the year 2012 could misrepresent a woman's body so completely, and that he's also on the science committee. Two, it simultaneously damages the possibility of a public trust in those Congressmen who do respect accuracy (scientific or otherwise). It gives people an opportunity to argue that Bernie Sanders' statements about climate change have as little scientific accuracy, or as much underlying ideological meaning, as Akin's. Caught in the middle are women, who traditionally have less of a voice in Congress, and whose bodies are constantly being allocated by religion and other power apparatuses. Like an approaching event horizon, I'm not sure where our possibility of escape from this undercurrent lies. Akin's ultimate political fate may signal a shift, one way or another, in the priority we place on information and truth. His words affront more than a right to have an abortion, or even a right to define rape; his statements affront a right to be accurately informed, to have an accurately informed opinion on issues that physically affect us, to cast an accurately informed vote in November. When that right erodes completely, we--as a nation, as human beings--are legitimately fucked.

July 11, 2012

Experimental Metaphysics, or, the anti-God Particle

Physics and philosophy: a dichotomy that reaches back centuries, and perhaps a necessary boundary exists between them, one that fuels each side in its quest to explain Being and Knowledge, and all of the nebulous associations therein. It seems like a zen koan to describe noumena from the perspective of high energy physics, or to linguistically deconstruct the spin of an elementary particle. And yet I think both reach toward the same goal: to identify, and contextualize, what it means to be, and how the knowledge behind that "means" is produced. When science announces a discovery as important as the Higgs, it's a lot more than simple materiality (though that's vital); evidence of a Higgs field goes a long way toward describing the makeup of space, and how the universe came to exist, which is a lot closer to philosophy than some physicists would like to admit. And when a theorist examines materiality from a discursive perspective, proposing that matter and meaning are inextricably co-produced, it's hard not to conclude that experiments like the LHC are implicated. Scientists hold themselves to strict verifiability and reproducibility standards in their work, but it's rarely discussed how the fact that they set these standards for themselves affects scientific epistemology. A Higgs-like particle has been confirmed at a mass of approximately 125 GeV. Aside from its very large importance as an empirical discovery--the Standard Model, should this result hold up, would then be complete--what does it mean to us?

Lawrence Krauss, who writes a lot about space, proposes a theory along these lines: now that we know something about the Higgs field, which purportedly interacts with particles in a way that gives them mass, we know something about how our universe developed to accommodate life. Without the Higgs field, particles would never have combined to form atoms, molecules, planets; without an aggregation of mass, conditions for (our form of) life could have never manifested. Discrete particles would zip around at the speed of light; we would all be neutrinos, so to speak. We understand life by understanding the component parts that create a space in which life can exist. Krauss writes that a Higgs field "validates the notion that seemingly empty space may contain the seeds of our existence." Empty space, in fact, proves not to be so empty: dark energy, the Higgs field, and other quantum stuff is out there, and some of it--or something not yet identified--drives an ever-increasing inflation of the universe, which is another important piece of the ontological puzzle. (My indulgent theory: consciousness itself is dark energy. More explanation about the multiverse theory, and the specific amount of dark energy present in our universe, is warranted to flesh this out, which I'll do in a later post.) 

Based on these implications of a Higgs field, Krauss suggests that the Higgs particle is "arguably more relevant than God." This strikes me as an unabashed toeing of the philosophical line, despite its ostensibly religious language (it's also, of course, a reference to the much-loathed "God particle" moniker that the media loves): the deeper we probe the depths of matter, space, and time, the more empirical our knowledge becomes about the origin of the universe, theoretically eliminating the need for invented theologies to explain natural events. But God has always been a tool for a way of thinking that, by definition, eschews empiricism: faith is the operative apparatus, not belief in a verifiable system. I doubt any ardent believer in God/gods is swayed by the arrival of a verifiable Higgs, and I don't blame them: who's to say that God didn't activate the Higgs field so life could arise here? More important is the Higgs' contribution to metaphysical exploration, to our understanding of what it means to exist as an amalgam of particles, how agency is related to matter, how an ability to think came to be. The term "experimental metaphysics" was coined by Abner Shimony, and attempts to apply metaphysical concepts to experimental analysis. The Higgs is a sublime example of this overlap. If physics and philosophy split apart at the advent of experimental verification, it appears that we've at last arrived back where we started, using one field to inform and provoke the other to greater and more nuanced understandings of ourselves. 

July 4, 2012

Euphoria!

In John Parson's words (via live chat at Scientific American), this is the atmosphere at CERN right now. Celebration everywhere, even as more information is released, and bigger questions emerge. What does this mean for supersymmetry? and for string theory? are there other "higgslike" bosons? is 14 TeV a high enough operating energy for the LHC to find answers when it restarts in 2015? will the anthropic principle play a role?

Catch up on all of today's reaction here, here, here, here, here. Images from CERN here; video footage here; interview with Francois Englert here.

June 26, 2012

Indoor Fireworks

CERN announced that its next "scientific seminar" (read: live-streamed press conference) will take place on July 4, where ATLAS and CMS will announce the preliminary results of their 2012 data analysis. The stakes are pretty high, since the December data left many people with the impression that the Standard Model Higgs would be confirmed at a mass of 125 GeV, or else point to physics beyond the Standard Model: as I've mentioned before, this--despite its lack of immediate discovery--is an especially tantalizing possibility for physicists who suspect that moving our current scientific framework outside of the SM would yield really exciting, even revolutionary (and certainly Nobel-worthy) new knowledge about the particular makeup of the universe.


Importantly, if CERN presents data that hints at a BSM Higgs, this does not imply that the Higgs does not exist. Dennis Overbye, a writer I really admire, sort of missed the mark here when he writes that "If the December signal fades, it probably means that the Higgs boson, at least as physicists have envisioned it for the past 40 years, does not exist, and that theorists have to go back to their drawing boards." The Higgs can certainly still exist as physicists envision it--but outside of the SM parameters. A different set of search strategies will be implemented, more powerful particle smashing will occur, and science's most famous scavenger hunt will continue. (If you want to read more about this, Matt Strassler, as always, breaks it down with accuracy and patience.)


In any case, excitement is high, and the folks convening next week in Melbourne for the International Conference on High Energy Physics (ICHEP) probably have little else on their minds. It's all Higgs all the time these days, since the LHC is running even better than expected (thank you, experimentalists and engineers), and everyone wants to know whether the Standard Model will be upheld. Rumors have been swirling online for weeks that the 2012 data will support the 2011 numbers, and I'm inclined to believe them. In Sharon Traweek's excellent anthropological text Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High-Energy Physicists, she notes that information passed informally among peers (outside of publication, even in Letters) is 
often influential and accurate; compound that with the Internet (which physicists love to boast they invented) and apocryphal headlines like Overbye's ("New Data on Elusive Particle Shrouded in Secrecy") makes me think that CERN is about ready to pop the champagne. This absolutely does not mean that irrefutable proof of a 125 GeV Higgs is at hand: it will still take years to understand the particle and its implications. But it would guarantee funding for probably decades to come, and will bolster efforts to discover even more exotic particles at more elusive energies. The Higgs has become a sort of celebrity representative of the many exciting theories in HEP, and in some ways, allowing the fever of the Higgs "hunt" to subside may pave the way for scientists to focus on even more profound potential discoveries like supersymmetry and the makeup of dark matter.

Personally, I think celebrating the biggest international achievement in the history of science is a poetic way to spend our independence day, and maybe even a kick in the pants to our own government to fund high-energy physics on a competitive scale. Fermilab and Brookhaven are important but outdated; our research universities aren't attracting the talent they used to; and open-access publishing makes it less imperative that scientists be in a certain place doing a certain kind of physics. The US, instead of spending trillions of dollars pursuing pointless wars (at home and abroad), should invest in the kind of future that could sustain us, and inspire us, for generations: let's redefine the historical import behind those fireworks. The indoor kind is so much better.

June 6, 2012

"We Were All Closet Science-Fiction Writers"

Our world lost another literary hero today, Ray Bradbury, whose words and ideas have influenced a legion of writers, whether all of them admit it or not. It's been a sort of exciting month for science fiction, with the New Yorker's first sci-fi summer fiction issue, which directly addressed the notion that science fiction is located outside the walls of Literature, and therefore unqualified to comment on the Human Condition. Despite its sometimes mixed repuation, I've always enjoyed the NYer for its unapologetic self-consciousness: many would argue that its pages are unfriendly to writers outside of those close literary circles, and maybe that's true; but maybe their editorial staff is less savvy and more honest about their own likes and dislikes than they're given credit for. Or maybe they're trying to have it both ways: the sci-fi issue also included a Jennifer Egan story serialized via twitter, a nod both to Literature (Egan won last year's Pulitzer, after all) but also to an evolving definition of Literature: A Visit from the Goon Squad was hardly genre writing, I think, but it was creative enough--and had chapters set in the future--to take some of the pigment out of that delineation. Ray Kurzweil might argue that shading literature toward science isn't some admission of broadened categories, but a signal of the fact that, finally, we are living in the future; that technology has exponentially accelerated mankind to a place  and mindset that is, necessarily, scientific. Quantum mechanics brought us the transistor, an invention that lies behind at least fifty percent of today's computing technology. (Given the vast numbers of people who use mobile phones, computers, and GPS devices, I'd argue that the applicability of this fifty percent is much higher.)

Many of my favorite writers (Vonnegut, Ballard, Murakami, Clarke; I would even argue Pynchon, Poe, King) have found themselves anointed by critics as sometimes-sci-fi, or not-quite-Literature, or almost-canonical. Many of these writers have written directly about this (Ballard, in his introduction to his collected short stories, wrote that he couldn't care less about categorization, an essay that had a huge impact on my attitude toward my own writing). This list also includes Bradbury, whose oeuvre is unabashedly sci-fi, and better for it. The Paris Review published a wonderful interview with him in 2010, where a major topic was genre:


INTERVIEWER
Does science fiction offer the writer an easier way to explore a conceptual premise? 

BRADBURY
Take Fahrenheit 451. You’re dealing with book burning, a very serious subject. You’ve got to be careful you don’t start lecturing people. So you put your story a few years into the future and you invent a fireman who has been burning books instead of putting out fires—which is a grand idea in itself—and you start him on the adventure of discovering that maybe books shouldn’t be burned. He reads his first book. He falls in love. And then you send him out into the world to change his life. It’s a great suspense story, and locked into it is this great truth you want to tell, without pontificating.
I often use the metaphor of Perseus and the head of Medusa when I speak of science fiction. Instead of looking into the face of truth, you look over your shoulder into the bronze surface of a reflecting shield. Then you reach back with your sword and cut off the head of Medusa. Science fiction pretends to look into the future but it’s really looking at a reflection of what is already in front of us. So you have a ricochet vision, a ricochet that enables you to have fun with it, instead of being self-conscious and superintellectual. 

This week, as a Dutch startup plans a mission to Mars--broadcast via reality television, a tried-and-true sci-fi plot element--and the space shuttle Enterprise reaches its new home at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum, I'll revisit The Martian Chronicles and Dandelion Wine and revel in our shared science reality

June 5, 2012

A Quantum of Consciousness

If New York is any indicator, science has officially captured the layman's imagination. In the past couple of months, I've been to probably a dozen lectures or readings about the Higgs boson, quantum mechanics, or neuroscience, and all of them have been sold out. Rooms just completely packed with people hanging on every word from Brian Greene's mouth (his keynote at the World Science Festival last weekend was stellar), or enraptured by Matt Strassler's suggestion that music theory can inform quantum physics (it can). I showed up to a talk by the physicist David Hogg that had at least a hundred people who were turned away--including me, who foolishly assumed that I could show up ten minutes prior and still get a seat. The "hard" sciences are experiencing a cultural renaissance, partly thanks to these men (and women) who are willing to engage the public, and perhaps more importantly, to do it online: for anyone with the interest and the time, the Internet hosts a spectrum of informative and engaging non- or semi-technical resources that can be trusted. My facebook feed is cluttered with news about neutrinos and links to simulcasted events from Europe. Influential and prolific bloggers like Sean Carroll and Marcelo Gleiser not only write about their own research and fields, but actively refute other stuff they read that is inaccurate or misleading, an invaluable resource for a humanist with no physics background. Neil deGrasse Tyson blogs about Manhattanhenge and tonight's Venus transit with no agenda but to inspire non-scientists to see the world with the wonder and enthusiasm it deserves.


It's a good time to love science, is what I'm saying.


Take, for example, my favorite of the recent lectures: Paul Davies, Thorsten Ritz, and Seth Lloyd on quantum biology. Three physicists whose work has recently shifted toward this totally new field, new enough that it may only provisionally exist, though they were pretty excited about it. (And hilarious, too; I laughed all through Hockenberry's moderation.) It's a new spin on a unifying theory: quantum mechanics can explain life? Apparently, yes: quantum mechanical actions like entanglement and tunneling may elucidate some semi-understood concepts like bird migration patterns and photosynthesis. Davies said he couldn't be sure if the little evidence that has emerged so far reveals isolated instances where QM plays a role or--more tantalizing--whether these instances are "peaks of a quantum mechanical structure," if life's very distinctiveness is in essence quantum mechanical. This concept needs some unpacking, but I'm not sure I can think of anything more exciting. I'm already formulating half-baked extensions of this theory, especially as it includes consciousness (the last frontier for quantum mechanics, I suspect): what if a quantum of consciousness--a conscino, let's say--means the difference between living and nonliving? Further still, if all matter exists because of quantum mechanics (which is pretty well accepted), this may suggest that our entrenched definitions of "living" and "nonliving" need to be reworked, since anything has the potential to be endowed with quantum conscience. Much like how pre-Copernican scholars believed the earth was the center of the galaxy, maybe the paradigm shift we'll see in our lifetimes will completely re-orient how we locate our minds amid all that surrounds us. It's not a new theory--for aeons, shamans and other "outliers" have incorporated ideas of connectivity and immateriality--but if proposed by the esoteric circles that dictate our operating truths, its profundity will be redefined. And I'll be at my laptop, live-blogging it, because our web of computers is already evidence of the evolving definition of "thinking."


For fun:  Information and the Nature of Reality: From Physics to Metaphysics by Paul Davies
Programming the Universe: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes On the Cosmos by Seth Lloyd



May 4, 2012

Dancing in the Moonlight

In anticipation of this weekend's supermoon, which will reach peak fullness/closeness at 11:35pm EDT on Saturday, I offer the terrific novel The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon by Tom Spanbauer; Moon: A Brief History by Bernd Brunner; and, of course, Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, as read by Christopher Walken


I've always thought the moon was a special, magical thing, capable of pulling tides and obscuring the sun. Greek mythology had a profound effect on my early imagination, and Artemis was my favorite. (How great that one of the bolometer cameras at APEX in Chile is the 'Architectures de bolometres pour des Telescopes a grand champ de vue dans le domaine sub-Millimetrique au Sol' (ARTEMIS)!) So I'll be dancing tomorrow night, and you should too.

March 20, 2012

Quote of the day

From Daniel Whiteson, member of ATLAS and professor at the University of California at Irvine. “With the current data, a Standard Model Higgs at 125 GeV is like Mitt Romney: the most likely option, but the least exciting.”


I pulled this from Matt Strassler's excellent blog "Of Particular Significance," where he writes prolifically about the Higgs and other subatomic awesomeness. This week he's reporting from the SEARCH (SUSY, Exotics, And Reaction to Confronting the Higgs) Workshop on the LHC, where a dizzying slate of topics are being discussed by (mostly experimental) physicists. Supersymmetry, the hierarchy problem, dark energy and tons of other stuff are all theoretically implicated in the data pouring from ATLAS and CMS. An SM Higgs could feasibly be just one of many revolutionary discoveries--and at 125 GeV, apparently a boring one. ("The particle decays are the right height." OK, that's a terrible joke. Hey, it's spring outside!)


Anyway, read Strassler's blog, and decide for yourself whether you'd settle for the SM Higgs or hope for something less predictable. (And keep an eye out for possible video from his lecture at the Secret Science Club last week!)

March 16, 2012

Measurement, Matter, & Meaning

Today's results that suggest neutrinos cannot travel faster than the speed of light should have surprised no one; there were too many variables, too much opportunity for human error, and too little evidence that such results can be explained without a profound revision of our understanding of quantum mechanics. The entire episode is something that may not have played out so spectacularly in the media if not for the open-source nature of scientific data-sharing; certainly, physicists were reluctant to assume anything prior to rigorous empirical verification. I suspect that, most of the time, errant results like the too-fast neutrino would remain out of the public eye until seriously considered viable by a large swath of the scientific community.

Alternatively, three months after the initial Higgs results were announced from CMS and ATLAS, further data analysis still points strongly toward a SM Higgs somewhere around 125 GeV/c2.  This is significant, again because of the nature of subatomic experimentation: both the theory behind quantum field theory, and the machinery designed to execute experiments that may support the theory, are unbelievably complex. No one wants to crow about the discovery of the Higgs without being absolutely sure--and even that is complicated. Most of the calculations behind the Standard Model have been verified within an extremely small percentage of error, but this kind of new physics simply may not yield such certainties. Brian Greene writes about this as it relates to multiverse theory: eventually, the culture of physics may have to adjust to the fact that our current language of investigation--be it mathematical, experimental, or both--lags behind, requiring (ahem) faith in the numbers.

It's a tricky epistemological state: traditional models of knowledge construction require experimental verification, period. Just ask Alan Sokal. But one of the things that fascinates me most about our relationship with information is that the very act of measurement affects the matter under analysis: Neils Bohr writes at length about this, arguing that there are no inherent boundary characteristics of bodies, and that apparatus necessarily affects measurement. The particle-wave duality of light is a classic example of the fact that objects can exhibit contrasting properties under different experimental circumstances (the scientific term for this is "complementarity"). Bohr, rather than concluding that there are different kinds of light, proposed a theory of the phenomenal whole: waves or particles are simply differing phenomenal expressions of light, as enacted by differing experimental cuts. Therefore, the experimental apparatus itself--and, logically, its human operator--always affects the experimental result.

Karen Barad takes Bohr's philosophy one step further, arguing that all matter and meaning is mutually constructed and constantly reconfigured. She calls the onto-epistemological differences in phenomenal expression "agential cuts," or articulations of agency based on local material definitions. Light as a wave is the result of one particular agential cut; light as a particle is another. This logic can be applied infinitely, I think: the Higgs boson is both an expression of calculus and a simulated visualization at CERN; gravity may be an expression of both cosmology and quantum physics.

I could write about this forever--but you can see how experiments with neutrinos and bosons, which require the most conceptually advanced and technically sensitive apparatus in the history of science, imply quite a bit about the co-constitutive nature of matter (neutrinos) and meaning (whether they can travel faster than the speed of light). Implicit in every scientific endeavor is, ultimately, knowledge: and as any fan of Foucault  will tell you, knowledge is power, and power is the ultimate material. Just like quantum jitters, if you look closely enough, it's always there: you just need the ability to measure it.

March 6, 2012

Stars: They're Just Like Us

Q: "What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the Universe?"
A: “When I look up at the night sky, and I know that, yes, we are part of this Universe, we are in this Universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the Universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up—many people feel small, because they’re small and the Universe is big, but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars.”


This is Neil DeGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in the Department of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History, giving TIME Magazine a glimpse of his stunning eloquence and intellect. More here: 






Tyson is the rare physicist who speaks to the ontological implications of science: the conceptual leap from calculus to matter is the toughest to reconcile within our everyday reality, especially within an ideological culture that upholds human life as superior, more complex, or even unique. Tyson speaks of "atoms," a nod to the fact that he's an astrophysicist, not a particle physicist, but his emotion when speaking of a greater connectivity suggests that the quest for deeper truths--the unification of cosmology and quantum mechanics--lies not just within ourselves, but within everything in the universe. 

February 14, 2012

Eros & Psyche


In the spirit of the holiday, eat some chocolate and feast your pheromone-addled minds on these: Einstein in Love: A Scientific Romance by Dennis Overbye and Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss. Then spend some time gazing at Canova's "Eros and Psyche" (or "Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss") which is, I think, the most romantic sculpture of all time. The beauty, the tragedy, the science: your hearts will pound.

February 8, 2012

The Lyrical Core of Man: Bits and Bells


From Sergio Bertolucci in yesterday's CERN press release: “Our Standard Model Higgs analysis with data collected so far leaves us in a very exciting position for 2012. With the data we collect this year, we will definitely be able to confirm or rule out a Standard Model Higgs.”

A bold statement ("definitely"!)--and indicative of how strong the December ATLAS/CMS results are. Clarifying whether the Higgs exists, and whether it's the Standard Model version, are two vastly different things, but it's still a huge endorsement for the LHC (and, hopefully, for string theory). 96% of the universe remains unexplained by the Standard Model, so results that don't point past it will be disappointing but still a coup for the collider. ATLAS won't even run at full speed until 2015, so there is a lot of good particle smashing ahead.

And speaking of the 96%, all kinds of tantalizing theories have emerged to explain it. Einstein's much-maligned "cosmological constant" theory has rebounded among some physicists, hinting at reconciliation between cosmology and quantum mechanics, and supersymmetry remains the holy grail of theorists. Plus: Craig Hogan, a physicist at the University of Chicago and director of the Fermilab Particle Astrophysics Center, has proposed that space is actually composed of discrete bits of information, not a continuous field; in other words, that the universe is digital! This might sound radical, but it dovetails nicely with what recent theories have predicted about black holes and holograms (both of which rely on the existence of digital information in space to make any sense).

[An aside: NOVA is back on PBS, and it's pretty awesome (if you can stand a few terribly animated interludes). Brian Greene, science hero to the masses, is as engaging as ever and talks through some really tricky stuff.]

But back to digital space, and information theory, which Claude Shannon developed at Bell Labs in 1948. Information theory, in tandem with the transistor, another Bell invention, completely revolutionized electronics and communications and provided a conceptual space within which brilliant thinkers from all disciplines found purchase--most recently, quantum computing, the new frontier of super-fast data computation using QM phenomena like entanglement and superposition. (Check out The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner for more on the interdisciplinary wonderland that was Bell Labs. Full discolsure: my dad worked at Bell in the late '60s!)

Ontologically, conceptualizing human existence within information theory is intimidatingly abstract: how can we reconcile our perception of reality as 1s and 0s? Do photon packets carry digital information, and can we harness or control it? How does this trouble the disctinction between human and nonhuman? And my favorite question: can information theory explain our relationship to consciousness? I could think about this all day.

Death, too, is complicated when the corporeal is deemphasized. In The Birth of the Clinic, Foucault writes that, once death is understood as one of many manifestations of life, “death left its old tragic heaven and became the lyrical core of man: his invisible truth, his visible secret.” If the brain is just a highly sensitive piece of receiving technology interpreting billions and billions of bits--themselves reverberations of subatomic loops--and converting them into emotion and intellect, the "invisible truth" reveals itself: what we think of as spiritual life is transient and unaffected by the death of bodies. The lyrical core of man is an eternity of vibrating strings.

January 9, 2012

Cafe and Kosmos

If you're in Munich this week, don't miss the latest Cafe & Kosmos gathering: "Particle Accelerators: In Search of New Physics." Professor Jochen Schieck will talk about the next phase of the LHC as well as the new Super KEKB accelerator in Japan, which will start up in 2014 and promises an increase in measurement precision, which might make all the difference if the LHC is able to narrow down the Higgs mass but not pinpoint it exactly. Admission is free; discussion is in German.

Also, some relevant supplementary reading: "Quantenfische – Die Stringtheorie und die Suche nach der Weltformel" (Quantum Fish – The String Theory and the Search for the Theory of Everything) by Dieter Lüst, director at the Max Planck Institute for Physics, introduces the string multiverse theory and some other cool stuff. Also, read 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami if you're jonesing for some seriously far-out fiction, and not without a TOE of its own.

December 16, 2011

The Courageous Wit of Christopher Hitchens

It's a sad day: the prolific and provocative Christopher Hitchens has died (here is Christopher Buckley's touching postscript). Hitchens was a fierce polemic, and a hero to atheists ("new" and "old" alike); I fear that no one will replace him with such informed brio. His canonical God is Not Great and The Portable Atheist address the volatile intersections between politics, culture, and religion with erudition and charm; but he was also a gleeful lexicomane who penned dozens of essays on an astounding number of subjects (click here to read his rigorous upbraiding of Sarah Palin for her characteristically flip and uninformed stance on drosophila research).

As the Tea Party et al proliferate increasingly worrying ideologies about science (scientific sonsensus about everything from vaccines to climate change to evolution is "up for debate" these days), the loss of a fearless writer like Hitchens is acute. I will miss being thrilled and inspired by his words.

December 13, 2011

And So It Begins: Narrowing In On 126 GeV

This morning's presentations by Fabiola Gianotti (ATLAS) and Guido Tonelli (CMS) confirmed what many science bloggers were predicting: if the SM Higgs exists, its mass should be in the 115-130 GeV range (probably right around 126 GeV), indicated by data produced by both experiments. CERN is being extremely cautious in their public optimism, and emphasizes that statistic fluctuations may be responsible for some of the bumps, but I hung out with the physics department at NYU this morning, and there was a lot of happy energy...I think today's news is inconclusive, but fully expect that further data analysis will result in a serious announcement sometime this summer.

The questions is: is this the SM Higgs, or something more exotic? As exciting as a discovery of the SM Higgs would be, it's more tantalizing to imagine data that excludes the SM Higgs, opening the door for some really new physics. (Detection of a non-SM Higgs is beyond the LHC's capacity at its current energy, but starting in 2014, it will run at its full design energy, greatly increasing the possibility of data that hints at new particles.) Either way--and perhaps most importantly--these results are substantial, and the LHC delivered even more data, and more quickly, than most people hoped for, which reinforces the worth of the $5.5b LHC price tag as well as a lot of physicsts' life work (and just wait for 7 TeV! The Standard Model only describes 4% of the universe's matter. There is still a lot to uncover).

The live webcast is here; the CERN press release and other info (plus pictures!) is here; Adrian Cho from Science sums up the results here; Lisa Grossman for NewScientist here; and, for fun, Tommaso Dorigo's post on why these results should be considered "firm evidence" of the SM Higgs.

The world's attention will be increasingly focused on CERN for the next year (one scientist wrote that today's press conference was the craziest he's ever witnessed--he likened it to the release of the iPhone). Within the larger spheres of global economic, political, and cultural tumult, it will be interesting to see how a scientific revolution will play a role in shaping the 21st century.


December 8, 2011

Sergio Bertolucci, Director of research at CERN, on the Higgs: "I think we may get indications that are not consistent with its non-existence."

That's right, physicists ("finding it hard to keep the smiles from their faces," according to the BBC) are using double-speak so they don't divulge what's probably going to be announced at CERN on Tuesday: significant evidence that the Higgs exists! Stay tuned.

Also, some news so awesome I can't keep the smile from my face: the first artist-in-residence (the Prix Ars Electronica Collide@CERN laureate) was announced this week: the very lucky and talented Julius Von Bismarck, from Germany, earns the privilege of a two-month residency at CERN starting in March 2012, and the result of the collaboration will be showcased at the next Ars Electronica Festival in 2012. Art and science, unite!

And, some fun winter-break reading: check out Atom: Journey Across the Subatomic Cosmos by Isaac Asimov, then revisit the Black Widowers. You're welcome.