The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘matter’

Higgs Boson Lecture at Dragon*Con 2012

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 22, 2012

While at Dragon*Con 2012, I gave an incredibly well-attended lecture (standing room only!) on the recent “discovery”(?) of the Higgs boson and our modern theories of particle physics (known as the Standard Model).  The lecture was followed by a very fruitful Q&A session which was made all the more interesting because attending the lecture was an engineer who actually works on a detector at the Large Hadron Collider and a theoretical particle physicist!

I recorded the audio of the lecture in order to share it, and I have embedded that audio into the PowerPoint file I used for my lecture.  Enjoy! 🙂

The Higgs Boson – DC Lecture with Audio

Posted in philosophy, scientific method, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Higgs Boson, The “God Particle”, and the March of Science

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 14, 2011

You may have heard the recent news that physicists at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider may be narrowing their search for the Higgs Boson.  Here’s an update from The Guardian…

particle collision cern

A graphic showing traces of collision of particles at Cern. Photograph: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

We may have glimpsed the Higgs boson, say Cern scientists

Scientists believe they may have caught their first glimpse of the Higgs boson, the so-called God particle that is thought to underpin the subatomic workings of nature.

Physicists Fabiola Gianotti and Guido Tonelli were applauded by hundreds of scientists yesterday as they revealed evidence for the particle amid the debris of hundreds of trillions of proton collisions inside the Large Hadron Collider at Cern, the European particle physics laboratory near Geneva. …

Let me just put a few things into perspective here on this potential (and I stress potential) discovery.  First, the data are rather preliminary, and in order to say for sure that there is solid evidence for the Higgs Boson, there need to be more observations to help shore up the statistical analysis.  In particle physics, it is not uncommon to see the occasional “discovery” that eventually ends up being merely a statistical anomaly, so more data is better to weed out the anomalies.  This section of The Guardian article helps to clarify this point:

… Particle physicists use a “sigma” scale to grade the significance of results, from one to five. One and two sigma results are unreliable because they come and go with statistical fluctuations in the data. A three sigma result counts as an “observation”, while a five sigma result is enough to claim an official discovery. There is less than a one in a million chance of a five sigma result being a statistical fluke.

Gianotti and Tonelli led two separate teams – one using Cern’s Atlas detector, the other using the laboratory’s Compact Muon Solenoid. At their seminar yesterday one team reported a 2.3 sigma bump in their data that could be a Higgs boson weighing 126GeV, while the other reported a 1.9 sigma Higgs signal at a mass of around 124GeV. There is a 1% chance that the Atlas result could be due to a random fluctuation in the data. …

So, by these data, while the 2.3 and 1.9 sigma signals are interesting, they don’t really rise to the level of a solid observation (which, recall, is set at a standard of 3.0 sigma), much less an official discovery.

Also, by “narrowed the search” for the Higgs Boson, what the CERN physicists mean is that they may have narrowed down the energy range in which the Higgs Boson might exist.  So, long story short, while these results are of interest, don’t go popping those champagne corks just yet 🙂

The “God Particle”?

I don’t know about you, but I get kind of annoyed at all of this labeling of the hypothetical Higgs Boson as the “God Particle”.  I see it as the kind of mushing of religion into science that leads to all manner of philosophically-challenged kind of muddy thinking.  First off, depending upon how one defines God (assuming the standard monotheistic version of the Abrahamic god), which is usually defined as a supernatural being, you run into trouble by trying to find natural evidence for a thing which is supposed to be beyond nature.

Second, even if we did discover the Higgs Boson, what would that supposedly tell us about this God?  Presumably various armchair theologians argue that such a discovery would be evidence for their view of God (which also begs the question of whether or not it is evidence for one God versus another God).  The logic here simply escapes me, and it smacks of the usual “everything is evidence for God” kind of argumentation that passes the lips of too many religious people.  And this also brings up a potentially sticky question for the advocates of the “God Particle” label…

What if the Higgs Boson isn’t discovered, despite years of detailed searching?  Will these same armchair theologians suddenly give up their belief in their God because the supposed “Particle” which is his/her/its/their fingerprint upon the cosmos was never there to begin with?  Somehow I don’t think so, because these believers will merely rationalize away the lack of evidence for the “God Particle”.  It is in this sense that I find some people who try to stick the round peg of religion into the square hole of science to be particularly annoying: they want to use science as a method of “proving” their religious beliefs when they think it will work for them, yet they completely dismiss science when it works against them.  It’s simply “heads I win, tails you lose” argumentation, and it is both intellectually lazy and disingenuous.

What if we don’t find the Higgs Boson?  Science will march on…

This is the thing I really like about science: it never ends.  The process of scientific investigation never ceases to ask questions, formulate ideas, and test out those ideas.  I think it is entirely possible that in the search for the Higgs Boson, it will never be found; and what then?  What if we never find it?  Well, that’s when I think things will get really interesting, because that means that much of what we think we know about the Standard Model of physics could very well be wrong.  And that would mean that we need to start looking at things differently; this is, to me, the antithesis of dogmatic thinking, and it shows how science is, collectively, the best mechanism we have for stimulating open and free inquiry of the world around us.

Now don’t get me wrong – I would be quite excited if the Higgs Boson were discovered.  But I think I would be much more excited if it weren’t found.  That would certainly open up a lot more questions, wouldn’t it?

To science!  May it march ever onward…

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Testing String Theory? How Real Science Progresses

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 16, 2010

Something very interesting has happened recently in the world of theoretical physics.  One of the hottest ideas around is the notion of so-called string theory: it’s the idea that all matter & energy in the universe – from the electrons & quarks that make up atoms to photons of light to everything in between – is composed of ultra-tiny strings of vibrating energy.  It’s a marvelous and mathematically elegant idea, one which many theoretical physicists believe holds the key to unifying the fundamental forces of nature, but it suffers from a big flaw: these strings are, according to the theory, so small that we have no way to experimentally detect them. Thus, if such is the case, then many physicists & critics of string theory have equated the idea with a dragon in the garage, an unfalsifiable notion which isn’t subject to scientific investigation.  I have placed myself into this category of string theory skeptics for quite a long time for this very reason…

… up until now, that is.  It seems that the question of whether or not string theory is testable, and therefore real science, has been answered.  That’s because recent theoretical analysis of string theory has revealed that it makes unique predictions which can be tested in a controlled laboratory setting having to do with a weird phenomenon called quantum entanglement. Up until now, physicists haven’t had a good way to really predict the behavior of systems that coupled via quantum entanglement, but it seems that some aspects of string theory can shed some light on this…

New study suggests researchers can now test the ‘theory of everything’

String theory was originally developed to describe the fundamental particles and forces that make up our universe. The new research, led by a team from Imperial College London, describes the unexpected discovery that string theory also seems to predict the behaviour of entangled quantum particles. As this prediction can be tested in the laboratory, researchers can now test string theory.

Over the last 25 years, string theory has become physicists’ favourite contender for the ‘theory of everything’, reconciling what we know about the incredibly small from particle physics with our understanding of the very large from our studies of . Using the theory to predict how entangled quantum particles behave provides the first opportunity to test string theory by experiment.

“If experiments prove that our predictions about quantum entanglement are correct, this will demonstrate that string theory ‘works’ to predict the behaviour of entangled quantum systems,” said Professor Mike Duff FRS, lead author of the study from the Department of Theoretical Physics at Imperial College London.

“This will not be proof that string theory is the right ‘theory of everything’ that is being sought by cosmologists and particle physicists. However, it will be very important to theoreticians because it will demonstrate whether or not string theory works, even if its application is in an unexpected and unrelated area of physics,” added Professor Duff. …

Read the rest of this entry »

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Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? Science May Now Have An Answer

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 3, 2010

Often people remark that science and philosophy deal with two different sets of questions.  I’ve heard many times that philosophy (or religion & theology) deal with the “why” questions whereas science deals more with the nuts-and-bolts kind of “how” questions.  But then you run into some questions which are kind of in the middle – and this is the region where philosophers of science focus much effort & ink discussing what they call the demarcation problem: where does science end & philosophy begin?

Let me give you an example of just such a fuzzy question, one which has been asked repeatedly down through the ages: why is there something rather than nothing?  Specifically, why is the universe (and us) here at all?  Why does it all exist?

Now, up until recently, many people would have looked at such a question as being beyond the realm of science, more appropriately categorized as one of philosophy, theology, or religion.  However, as science has advanced, our understanding of very fundamental physics related to the big bang is providing us clues as to the answer.  A little background first…

You see, recently there was a series of experiments conducted at the particle accelerator called the Tevatron at FermiLab just down the road from me in Batavia, IL (here’s a Chicago Tribune article on the experiments).  Specifically, what the physicists were attempting to do was to try to replicate the conditions of the early universe smashing counter-rotating beams of protons and anti-protons together at incredibly high energies (on the order of 1 TeV).  For those who don’t know, an anti-proton is the antimatter version of a proton – you see, the folks at FermiLab have an antimatter generation and storage facility.  Yeah, antimatter as in Star Trek 🙂

Posted in philosophy, physics denial/woo, religion, scientific method | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments »

Science Creates Artificial Cell and Creationists Spin, Spin, Spin

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 30, 2010

A couple of weeks back, a bombshell of an announcement hit the scientific world: the first artificial cell has been synthesized in the lab. Needless to say, this is a big deal, because it not only has vast implications for bio- & genetic engineering, but the discovery can help fill in gaps in our knowledge of how life evolved naturally from non-life (see my previous blog post on this issue – The God-of-the-Gaps Just Got Smaller: Link Found Between Life & Inorganic Matter)

What’s also interesting is the reaction from some religious & creationist circles concerning this discovery.  First, there is the response from the Catholic Church warning scientists not to “play God”…

Catholic Church officials said Friday that the recently created first synthetic cell could be a positive development if correctly used, but warned scientists that only God can create life.

Vatican and Italian church officials were mostly cautious in their first reaction to the announcement from the United States that researchers had produced a living cell containing manmade DNA. They warned scientists of the ethical responsibility of scientific progress and said that the manner in which the innovation is applied in the future will be crucial.

“It’s a great scientific discovery. Now we have to understand how it will be implemented in the future,” Monsignor Rino Fisichella, the Vatican’s top bioethics official, told Associated Press Television News.

“If we ascertain that it is for the good of all, of the environment and man in it, we’ll keep the same judgment,” he said. “If, on the other hand, the use of this discovery should turn against the dignity of and respect for human life, then our judgment would change.”

I’m all for proceeding cautiously in this particular research, because there is the potential for abuse, just as there is with any kind of new technology.  But read between the lines of what the Vatican is saying – they seem to be implying that, somehow, this artificial life is fundamentally different from “normal” life simply because of the manner in which it was created.

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The God-of-the-Gaps Just Got Smaller: Link Found Between Life & Inorganic Matter

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 20, 2010

If you’re familiar with various creationist arguments, you will no doubt recognize the infamous god-of-the-gaps argument. This is basically a variation on the classic logical fallacy called the argument from ignorance, which basically states that if we don’t understand some phenomenon with 100% clarity (such as the origins of life), then that must mean that “Poof! God did it”…

There is one fatal flaw with this kind of argument, which begs an interesting theological question: what happens to the god-of-the-gaps when we do come up with evidence & naturalistic explanations for the gaps in our knowledge?  Most scholarly theologians disdain the god-of-the-gaps argument precisely to avoid this trap, because they don’t want their god somehow diminished as science marches ever forward.

But not creationists, who usually take the intellectually lazy & dishonest route by simply dismissing the evidence filling in said gaps.  Only by ignoring and distorting the science can their god-of-the-gaps be maintained, so while the rest of us learn more and more about our universe and our place within it, creationists insist upon wallowing in their ignorance, content that their twisted reading of a 2000 year-old holy text (only one of many different supposedly “divinely inspired” holy texts out there) has revealed to them the truth.

So here’s the big news, and why the god-of-the-gaps just got a lot smaller: scientists have discovered a missing link between life and inorganic matter…

Philosophers and scientists have argued about the origins of life from inorganic matter ever since Empedocles (430 B.C.) argued that every thing in the universe is made up of a combination of four eternal ‘elements’ or ‘roots of all’: earth, water, air, and fire, and that all change is explained by the arrangement and rearrangement of these four elements. Now, scientists have discovered that simple peptides can organize into bi-layer membranes. The finding suggests a “missing link” between the pre-biotic Earth’s chemical inventory and the organizational scaffolding essential to life.

“This is a boon to our understanding of large, structural assemblies of molecules,” says Emory Chemistry Chair David Lynn, who helped lead the effort, which were collaborations of the departments of chemistry, biology and physics. “We’ve proved that peptides can organize as bi-layers, and we’ve generated the first, real-time imaging of the self-assembly process. We can actually watch in real-time as these nano-machines make themselves.” …

… The research is part of “The Center for Chemical Evolution,” a center based at Emory and Georgia Tech, for integrated research, education and public outreach focused on the chemistry that may have led to the origin of life. The National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy have funded the research.

Many groups studying the origins of life have focused on RNA, which is believed to have pre-dated living cells. But RNA is a much more complicated molecule than a peptide. “Our studies have now shown that, if you just add water, simple peptides access both the physical properties and the long-range molecular order that is critical to the origins of chemical evolution,” Childers says.

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