Posts Tagged ‘physics’

Fucking Higgs Field, How Does It Work?

October 24, 2011 - 8:16 pm No Comments

Lots of questions must be answered. What are the properties of the Higgs particles and, most important, what is their mass? How will we recognize one if we meet it in a collision? How many types are there? Does Higgs generate all masses or only some increment to masses? And how do we learn more about it? Since it is Her particle, we can wait, and if we lead an exemplary life, we’ll find out when we ascend to Her kingdom. Or we can spend $8 billion and build us a Super Collider in Waxahachie, Texas, which was been designed to produce the Higgs particle.

The above excerpt comes from a little book called The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question? by one Leon Lederman. In an older blog post, I mentioned a book called The Universe on a T-Shirt. The God Particle is the book you wanted to read instead. Or, at least, it’s the book I wanted you to read instead.

The God Particle is an incredibly clear and witty overview of particle physics from an experimenter’s point of view. Where as most of the books I’ve mentioned before have touched on the modern physics field (ha, it’s a pun) as a whole, this book sticks to the small stuff, and due to its directed nature, paints a really clear picture of quantum physics. You will learn things if you read this book, I promise. You might even understand quantum electrodynamics by the time you’re done (that’s a lie, no one understands quantum electrodynamics). The God Particle also eventually gets to the point: talking about the Higgs boson and its field, the search for it, why it’s so hard to find, and what it does, all of which was briefly and humorously touched on in the quote above.

Unfortunately, what was also touched on in the quote above was the ill-fated Superconducting Super Collider, a particle accelerator which was meant to be the United State’s 2000s-era foray into the very small. It was to be finished around the year 2000 and was pretty much for two things: to replace the Tevatron at Fermilab and to find the Higgs boson. This book was written in 1993, just before the SSC was scrapped (due to, you guessed it, budgetary concerns) with just about 20% complete (as I understand it, there’s still a giant hole in the ground in Texas where it was meant to go). However, the intro to the book, added in 2006, acknowledges this foible and introduces the reader to the Large Hadron Collider which, yes, is looking for the Higgs boson and, yes, as of this writing, no one has found it. So every time the SSC is mentioned in Lederman’s The God Particle, just replace it in your mind with “LHC” and you’re on the right track.

If you want to know more about the Large Hadron Collider and what it’s doing to find this mysterious God Particle, you can refer to a book I mentioned in my post You Can Read These Books with Strings, a Death Cab for Cutie joke none of you were cool enough to get. (I’m a hipster physicist: I want to know about the universe before it was cool.) (Alright, I’ll stop.) The title of that book was A Zeptospace Odyssey, a book I still consider to be the best layman’s physics text ever written for reasons I already mentioned.

If you want to know more about the characters involved in the great story of physics, I recommend The 4% Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality by Richard Panek. The book does go into some great detail about the search for dark matter, dark energy, and other things no one really understands, but the best part about it is how deeply it looks at all the people who have devoted their lives to finding out all the things that allow me to write these ridiculous blog posts. And believe me, there are some great personalities in there. As an added bonus for you math-averse readers, there’s nothing in The 4% Universe you won’t understand. It is quite actually a book everyone can read, and it contains a good base of scientific knowledge as well. That said, it’s definitely told in such a way as that it kind of expects you to know what’s coming, glossing over major events in an effort to get into the dark matter/dark energy situation. You won’t be missing anything, but unless you know a little bit of physics history, you might start to wonder what the point of it all is.

So there you have it. Two more books which attempt to explain literally everything and which come pretty close, at least for the average Joe.

One last thing: I’ve added a new category to the blog! It is, simply, “Science,” since I realise my last few posts have been pretty much… well, yeah. I may make an attempt to move out of my comfort zone and actually explain some science here! On this blog! Or I may just continue to read things that other people would never consider making a joke about and then make some jokes about them.

[A note on the title: I was originally going to call this post, "Fucking Quantum Electrodynamics, How Does It Work?," but then I realised I had already made that joke on Twitter.]

You Can Read These Books with Strings

August 3, 2011 - 11:08 pm No Comments

It is no secret that I am a huge fan of physics, and for some reason that intimidates people.  I have a new nickname at work, which has been used in jest, in earnest, and in mockery all: Lil Miss Science, usually followed by “over there”.

But here’s the real secret:

You can be too.

If you’ve ever logged on to my Goodreads account, you’ll see a slew of books on the subject, especially regarding physics of a quantum nature (though recently I’ve been branching out into pure mathematics and even geometry, Euclidian and non- both, but that’s a blog for another time).  Most of them have five stars, few of them have three or less.  And I am about to tell you which ones you can read off the bat, knowing only the maths you learned in high school.  Don’t scoff.  I failed algebra.  Twice.

In the Beginning:

If you really want broad, sweeping strokes, only touching on hard physics to get you prepared, start with Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.  Ah, I can see you being intimidated again, stop that.  I read this one over the course of a week while on vacation in North Carolina (because that’s what you do on vacation).  Not only will this book brush you up on your physics, the title is not really a lie – it’s got a little bit of everything in there, though it’s steered mostly toward the natural sciences.  And it’s clever.  And you’ll enjoy it.

For a more focused but still broad overview, try Simon Singh’s The Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe.  This was something I read in college while sitting alone in the cafeteria, busily not making friends.  Everything is explained clearly, and while it does get into a few technicalities, there are helpful pictures and charts, and if you don’t follow the math exactly (fuck, no one does) that’s perfectly okay, you’ll get more than the gist of it.

I Have the Science Channel and I Have Seen The Universe:

So you actually know what I’m going on about when I say quantum entanglement and dark matter.  Then you should read A Zeptospace Odyssey: A Journey into the Physics of the LHC by Gian Francesco Giudice.  Do not take it lightly when I say I have not been this impressed with a book – nonwithstanding a technical book – since I read House of Leaves.  And Maker above this is about nine trillion times easier to understand.  Giudice ties everything to easy-to-understand concepts and even popular culture, from Sherlock Holmes to the power output of the engine in a Ferrari Scuderia (he uses that last one for the mass to energy ratio, you’ll like it).  And you’ll get to learn fun facts like, if the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) was constructed entirely out of Swiss chocolate, it would have cost the same to build. This is what would happen if I was actually a physicist, binged on Top Gear, and then wrote a book.  Except you can actually understand A Zeptospace Odyssey. I laughed.  Out loud.  While reading this book.  To make it all the more impressive, this book was written by a native speaker of Italian.  In English.  You may commence feeling like a failure… now.

And if you haven’t already, read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and The Universe in a Nutshell.  There are not difficult books.  I promise.  And if you get the fancy version, they have really nice pictures.  And Star Trek references!

I Have Made a Schrodinger’s Equation Cake:

No, really.  I have.

And if you’re like me, you’ll want to read Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law.  You may begin to feel a little intimidated, and this time it’s justified.  I’ll admit, there were parts of this book that I skimmed, but it’s not hard to get what the author, Peter Woit, is saying at all.  Though the math is a bit weeooweeoo scary, the points are clearly and concisely covered, and with a tinge of dark humor as well.  It’s always good to understand the alternate theories in physics today, if you’re interested in any of them, and string theory, despite its myriad Nova Science Now specials, honestly does come up a bit short.  Should we entirely discount it?  I don’t know, read the book and decide for yourself.

I Breathe Math:

I don’t.  This one was beyond me but there was so much good stuff in it I plowed through until I simply felt like taking a bath with a hair dryer: Nothingness: The Science of Empty Space by Henning Genz starts off easy-peasy, but about halfway through I knew I’d gotten everything out of this book I possibly could.  It starts pretty much where all the others leave off: the details.  I believe particle spin is introduced in chapter 2 or 3 and while I have a (tentative) grasp on that, there’s a point where even I shake my head, sigh, and make a special, defeatist library trip.  That all said, what I did understand was definitely worth the trouble.  It’s fascinating to learn about all the weird things that happen in what we considered to be The Vacuum of Spaaaaaace.  If you’re into that, give it an honest effort.  I did.

So there you go.  Physics is phun.  I swear.  And hell, you might even learn something.

The Universe on a T-Shirt

July 17, 2011 - 7:20 pm No Comments

The Universe on a T-Shirt by Dan Falk is a book which starts at the beginning and ends at the present, telling the story of the famed Theory of Everything, a theory – first in religion and now in quantum physics – which should be able to explain everything ever, quite literally, with an equation short enough to fit on a t-shirt.  However, in its quest for simplicity, the theory so far has failed.

And so has this book.

There’s a fine balance between simplicity and too little information.  Parallel with today’s Theories of Everything, this book just doesn’t quite cut the mustard.  There are places where Falk seems to go on for days about things we learned in middle school – possibly because they’re simple to understand.  And then there are places where the sheer simplicity of the book in its efforts to mirror the ever-elusive ToE is simply too simple.

Now, I’m not so hot at math, but in layman’s terms, I’ve wrapped my head around a good deal of physics, from spin to quark flavors to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.  I would go so far as to say that on a basic level, I understand quantum theory, from physics to electrodynamics to entanglement.  In fact, I think anyone could if they just sat down and watched as much of the Science Channel as I have found possible to do.  However, while reading Universe on a T-Shirt, I was confused – honestly confused – by Einstein’s relativity.  Now, these days, this is high school stuff.  And the problem wasn’t me, trust me.  It was the absolute dumbing-down of the content.  In his attempts to cut out the mathematical fat, a thing which, trust me, I very much appreciate, Falk has cut out the core of the theory.  I read the same three pages over and over, saying to myself, “No, but wait, I know this already…” but in the first-grade manner in which it was presented, I really couldn’t understand it.  Too much was left out, too much was simplified, and too much was just told wrong.  That there is the best example I can give of the overall presentation of the information in Universe on a T-Shirt.

Perhaps it’s ironic (or perhaps it isn’t) that it was Einstein himself who said, “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”  This book is courageous, I’ll give it that.  But it’s sure not genius.

“To be well-remembered is a gift.”

June 29, 2010 - 11:12 am 11 Comments

              A woman, who has been a gift, told me that this morning.

              I am remembering, and remembering well.

              When I was a child, I had a piano, and not just any piano: I had an upright Steinway grand.  It had to be a hundred and twenty-five years old, and it was stellar.  I spent time with it every day.  I was small, maybe five or six, hardly more, but I loved that piano, and even then, I knew it was worth more than the emotions I alone imparted upon it; I knew it was worth more than the ridiculous sum of money I thought it was worth (despite it having been free in the Pennysaver from someone who probably just needed it to be gone).  I knew it was important.  It was music, and it was history, and it was love.

              But it was also old, and each time it was played, it sounded worse and worse.  My mother had it looked at to see what, if anything, could be done, but after so much time, it was fragile; the once straight, silver strings within the piano were warped and would have to be replaced, the worn-out hammers refitted.  We were living on food stamps then; we couldn’t afford cable TV or a Nintendo, let alone refitting an antique piano.  So, instead, I watched PBS and I read, and my mother and I would play our hearts out on the old, warped piano, and we didn’t care that our favorite tunes from Jesus Christ Superstar didn’t sound much like the album anymore.  She played and I sang and after a while I played, too, despite the tone-deaf Steinway.

              Then came the time when we, too, had to move, and once more, the piano had a family that needed the instrument to be gone.  So my father (a fine musician himself, but with a more easily-restrung instrument, the guitar), perhaps not wanting to see music be forgotten or left to strangers who, upon moving in, would not know its worth, would not care about its past, or perhaps just wanting to give it to someone who he knew would and could use it, gave the piano to a good friend of his called Jay, who had a son who could learn to play too, in time; a friend who maybe could restore it, or maybe not, but at least it would not be gone or forgotten.

              I went and visited my piano a few times with my father, but I then grew up and got too busy, forgot to visit, and after a while, the memory of my beloved piano faded away until I was old enough to really care to remember it and take care in remembering it: to research it, to find out the monetary cost of such an experienced instrument, and the historical value.  As it turned out, it had earned a lot of both.  I remembered my warped piano then, and I was angry: angry that I had had to give my treasure away; angry that I no longer even possessed a real piano; angry, too, at the less-than-stellar keyboard to which I’d since been demoted, which was born of plastics and would age far worse than my sturdy, cherished Steinway.

              But my anger would burn out; I knew the piano was in good hands, even if those hands had painted on the keys an acrylic rainbow to make the notes, the warped sounds the piano produced, easier to remember. Of those hands, I have a memory.

              Jay’s son and I would play the piano, when I did visit its new home.  Later in the evening, I would sit on the wooden piano bench and my father’s friend would tell me about the universe, about space and time.  He had a pocket watch on a chain.  Jay would take the silver chain and fold it over on itself, and he would explain to me that the universe: its buoyant, bright stars and super-massive black holes; its huge, nebulous gasses where stellar bodies were born and tiny, rocky planets where human bodies were too, folded on itself as well; that time warped space and space warped time, and that space and time were one, together; that time, like space, could be shaped, and he would say all of this with the watch on the end of the chain, the clock hanging limply at the edge of space in a small, silver universe, and it would tick away the time quietly in the background of my impromptu astro-quantum-physics class, never interrupting, but persistent.  Even at six, at seven years old, I came to understand that this was the important part of the lesson.  At the forefront of my brain, I wanted to be a physicist.  At the back, I was aware that time stretched on, fused with space as it was, and even if I missed something that Jay had said on those nights, I am forever glad I did not entirely skip the lecture.

              Last night, I mentioned my piano to a good friend while we talked, and the evening passed.

              This morning, I was told that Jay had passed last night.

              Though I have grown up, and had only visited a few times, I do miss him.

              “To be well-remembered is a gift,” a cherished woman told me this morning.  I believe her, and I believe, in time, I will remember her well.

              I also still believe in physics, and maybe now I believe in a little of the metaphysical.  I believe that time warps space and space warps time and that the two will never be parted.  I believe all of us affect and are affected by space and time, since, in the words of another man from my childhood who is also now gone and missed, “We are star-stuff.

              I know that being well-remembered does not allow us to interrupt the persistently short time we are given, as the ticking watch at the end of a small, silver, chain-link universe always knew, but I believe that it can be warped into the best shape that our stellar masses and minds can form, if we remember, and remember well, for as another man who affected my youth but was gone long before I could miss him had said, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.

              I have decided to remember the time, and time, remember well, because that same, stellar woman also told me this morning, “Those that are remembered, are never really gone.”

              ~*~

              Below the cut are (perhaps selfish) dedications and thank yous for the creation and exponential, infinite expansion of my mind and self: things I have wanted to say, things I should have said already, and things I say too much.

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